Keep Looking Up

Line ‘Em Up.

Source: Secrets Of The Universe

Unfortunately I slept through the great planetary alignment of 2022, or maybe fortunately because missing sleep can really throw me off, and also we live in a neighborhood with a lot of trees so I miss some opportunities to witness celestial events unless they happen in the winter, unless they’re due east in which case my view is blocked by woods, or if they’re almost directly overhead, or if I get up and drive somewhere with a low horizon and low light pollution, which is getting harder with each passing year.

Of course I do have a couple of astronomy apps on my iPad that allow me to see what’s in the sky regardless of what’s in the way which is why sometimes I’ll stand in the den and point it straight up at the ceiling and when my wife asks what I’m doing I can say, “Looking at Uranus,” but that’s another story.

In other words circumstances would have to line up in just the right way for me to see the great planetary alignment, but I’m okay with that. I remember when I was in second grade and there was supposed to be a solar eclipse that, while not total, would still be partly visible over Nashville. Of course it was cloudy that day. I’ve witnessed other eclipses since then, including the total one of 2017.

I’ve seen multiple lunar eclipses, most because I specifically planned my schedule around being somewhere where I could see them, and I’ve even gotten up in the middle of the night just to watch some.

One year my wife and I got up in the middle of the night and drove out to a farm where we watched the Perseid meteor shower which was supposed to be spectacular that year, and, lucky for us, it was. I’ve also seen meteors I wasn’t looking for; my eyes just happened to be in the right direction at the right time.

And then, Sunday afternoon, I fell asleep in front of the TV, because I hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before in spite of not getting up to see the great planetary alignment, with the Science Channel on, and I woke up just in time to hear an astronomer say, “Astronomy is a very serendipitous science!”

We can predict the movements of the planets—the next big one will happen September 8, 2040, but sometimes the best events are the ones that can’t be predicted.

Ring Around The Moon.

There was a ring around the moon.

We’d had snow then rain then more snow and periods of bitter cold and periods of cold that wasn’t bitter but wasn’t exactly sweet either, and I was really starting to hate going outside for anything, especially at night, especially on clear nights when the empty sky is cold, dark, and hungry, and just stepping outside meant pulling on heavy boots to avoid the risk of slipping on the frozen patio, or even on the frozen mud out in the yard. It wasn’t really a time for looking up, although when we had snow it did offer a nice view, especially at night when it was a luminous blue, like a seascape seen from a submarine.

I remember when I first learned about lunar rings. It was eighth grade and there was a whole chapter in my school science book about clouds and other meteorological phenomena. It also had a whole chapter entitled, “Will We Ever Reach The Moon?” which just reminded my friends and I how badly funded science education was, but that’s another story.

There was a picture of a three-quarter moon, like an opal, with a ring around it, and an explanation that sometimes ice crystals high up in the atmosphere would cause the moon to shine like a gem. Somehow I’d never seen this, although it must have happened—and in fact that very winter I’d see my first lunar ring, and understood why I might never have noticed one before. Unlike the one pictured in my science book the one I saw was enormous, stretched out almost to the horizon. It was unusual, but I suppose I never noticed rings around the moon before because, as much as I liked to look at the night sky, I must have been focused on the moon itself. Other times I’d see rings that were indistinct. Like the Pleiades on certain nights some lunar rings couldn’t be observed directly; they were elusive and couldn’t be seen if I looked directly at the moon. They only existed at the edge of my vision when I looked somewhere else.

According to folklore a ring around the moon means bad weather is coming: rain or snow, which makes sense. Since a ring around the moon is caused by ice crystals, or, more specifically, flossy clouds, it’s a sign of moisture in the atmosphere. I can’t understand why something so amazingly beautiful would be considered a sign of bad luck. I was glad to be outside to see it.

Light Up The Sky.

Aurora borealis seen from space. Source: NASA

I have friends in the Pacific Northwest who’ve been making me jealous with their pictures of the recent aurora borealis, apparently generated by a large solar storm that may or may not have affected power grids and other communications. My wifi has gone out a couple of times but that’s pretty typical—in fact a couple of weeks go it went down right in the middle of a conversation with my boss and when it came back we talked about how wifi tends to go out when it’s too sunny. Or too cloudy. Or dark. Or if it’s too hot. Or too cold. Or if temperatures are too average.

There have been a few times when the aurora borealis has been intense enough that it’s been visible from Nashville. I’ve never seen it at those times–mainly it seems to have only been spotted from places like the Dyer Observatory, but one of these days I hope to see it in person. Or the aurora australis which would be equally cool–maybe even cooler since Antarctic temperatures dip even lower. Until then, though, I’ll have to make do with pictures.

And they always made me think about our little planet’s place in the solar system, and the greater galaxy and the universe beyond, something I also think about on cool nights when the stars shine with a crystalline brightness. Auroras are a phenomenon we know isn’t unique to Earth, although we have to go all the way out to the gas giants to find others. Yes, there may even be auroras at either end of Uranus, but that’s another story.

At this time of year I also usually reread Wallace Steven’s poem The Auroras Of Autumn, which makes me feel connected not just to the galaxy beyond but to this little world we stand on too.

Lord Of The Rings.

Source: SkyView app

The Moon and Jupiter are very prominent in the southern sky right now in the early evening, but my eye is also drawn to a less luminous object between them. It’s Saturn, which, back in the days when astronomers thought the heavens were composed of crystal spheres, must have been the weirdest of all the wanderers, being the slowest—it takes nearly three times as long to orbit the Sun as Jupiter, although in those days astronomers also believed everything revolved around the Earth. Saturn was also, for most of human history, the edge of the solar system. Things got even weirder when Galileo turned his telescope to it. He’d already discovered that Jupiter had four moons of its own—and those would be followed by dozens more—and Saturn at first looked to him like a planet with two very large moons, but he couldn’t figure out why they sometimes disappeared. Once they were recognized as rings, and that those rings are held in place by the influence of some of Saturn’s moons, it made sense. We see Saturn at an angle and the rings are so thin that when they’re flat from our perspective they’re practically invisible.

Maybe it was because of its distance that Saturn got its name. The other planets were all named after Olympian gods, but Saturn, mythologically speaking, was the father of the Olympians, the one who swallowed all of his children except Jupiter, and who was defeated, sent down to a second-tier position but kept some of his original glory, becoming the scythe-wielding god of the harvest and time, and through the Dark Ages and Renaissance people who were born under Saturn were believed to be moody and cynical, but also ambitious—most artists were believed to be influenced by Saturn’s position at their birth.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to astrology, mostly, but I do think it’s possible planetary movements have some influence over our lives, and who we become as we move through time. The Earth isn’t a closed sphere; our little planet is affected by the Moon and the Sun, and it’s not unreasonable to think the powerful tug of other planets plays a part too. There’s even the idea that regular meteor impacts on the Earth—the most famous being the one that wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago—could be the result of where our solar system happens to be as it moves around in its outside arm of the Milky Way. If the universe beyond our solar system can affect, even destroy, life on Earth imagine what effects our closest neighbors might have.

And, looking up at Saturn, I remember one fall night when I was a kid and I was talking to a girl who lived across the street. Neither of us knew enough about astronomy to identify anything other than the Moon, and she said, “You know what would be cool? If all the planets were close enough or big enough that we could see them all clearly.”

That would be pretty cool but, with the way gravity works, I’m sure having every planet crammed in so close would have some powerful effects.

To The Moon.

So there have been thirteen full moons in 2020, with the last one appearing tonight, December 29th, and in most years that would be a minor note of interest, but the fact that it’s 2020 casts a pallor over everything. It’s been the year of no cheer, three-hundred and sixty-six days in a haze, eight thousand eighty four hours of glower, twelve months of stormy fronths. And of all the numbers thirteen is considered the unluckiest. It’s the only number with its own phobia, triskaidekaphobia, which has its first recorded use, according to the OED, in 1911, which is ironic because if you add up the numbers in that year they only add up to twelve. There are hotels that skip the thirteenth floor and manufacturers who try to avoid putting the number 13 on their products. In Tarot decks the Death card is number 13 of the Major Arcana, and let’s not forget the Friday The 13th Movies that got increasingly terrible as they went on and it’s ironic that there are only twelve. At the Last Supper there was Jesus and the twelve apostles, which may be the origin of a belief that it’s unlucky to have thirteen dinner guests. Twelve is considered luckier, at least at the end of the year—traditionally there are twelve days of Christmas which used to mean celebrations could spill over into the new year.

What’s so special, or so dismal, about thirteen anyway? It’s an odd number but so is seven, usually considered the luckiest number. It’s also a prime number but those are also supposed to be lucky, or at least have their own special appeal.

And thirteen’s not always unlucky. Unless you’re counting calories it’s lucky to get a baker’s dozen, especially if you’re ordering doughnuts, there are Thirteen Postures in Tai Chi, and many cultures consider thirteen to be the beginning of adulthood. It’s the beginning of the teenage years so, yeah, I can see why that would be considered unlucky.

The significance of thirteen may ultimately be lunar in origin, though. Most years have twelve full moons. A year with thirteen isn’t unusual but occurs about every three or for years, so whether you consider it lucky or unlucky pretty much depends on the kind of year you’ve had.

Moving Traditions.

One of the things I’ve missed about not taking the bus this year, specifically this season, is seeing the decorations. I’ve missed my afternoon commute getting darker as the days get shorter but brightened with the lights that decorate houses and shops along the way. Most years my wife and I will also drive around the neighborhood to see how houses we pass by without a thought most of the year are decorated, taking on a new distinctiveness. There’s at least one house we used to go by on our way to work each morning that had both a giant inflatable Santa and an inflatable Hanukkah Bear, and it always made me smile even though I had another day at work ahead of me, but that’s another story.

Some years too we’ve driven out to the country to see the Geminids. It was too cloudy this year but I knew they were still there, and most nights I can look to the East and see Jupiter and Saturn getting closer and closer to conjunction, something that hasn’t happened in almost four centuries, and a reminder that even when we’re staying still the world under our feet and the universe we’re part of keeps moving.

This year especially these traditions hold out the hope that next year will be better.




Source: SkyView app for iPhone

The other night I stepped outside, just to the edge of the patio, away from the faint light cast from the window, and through the trees I could see a bright object. It was Jupiter, hanging high in the southeast in the constellation Sagittarius, with Saturn below and slightly to the east of it. Checking an astronomy app on my phone I could see that Pluto was there too. It’s too small to be seen without a telescope, but I thought it made an interesting addition: two planets and one ex-planet.

The boundaries of our solar system, and probably every other solar system, are fuzzy, and constantly changing. Even after Galileo proved Earth moved around the Sun and not the other way around Saturn was believed to be the most distant planet. And then came the discovery of Uranus in 1781, followed by Neptune in 1846, and Pluto was added in 1930, before being demoted to “dwarf planet” in 2006 because it’s one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Kuiper belt objects hanging out past the orbit of Neptune but still within the Sun’s grasp.

I went outside to check out the sky because I was looking for Mars. Like the Sun it was below the horizon, but still out there, out of sight but not out of mind. On July 30th, if all goes according to plan, NASA will launch the Perseverance rover, bound for Mars, due to arrive in February 2021, where it will search for life. That makes the name Perseverance especially fitting; scientists have been looking for and hoping to find life on Mars since, well, probably as long as it’s been understood that Mars was a planet like Earth. Scientists hoped and even expected to find at least vegetation on Mars until the probe Viking 1 sent back pictures in 1976 that showed what a cold, hostile place Mars is. And yet there’s also a persistent belief that, having landed humans on the Moon, Mars is our next big leap.

Mars also seems like an end. The distance from Earth to Mars is roughly less than seventy million miles. It’s about another three hundred and forty million from Mars to Jupiter, and what we’d face out there makes just crossing the distance look easy. Jupiter has no solid surface. Maybe we could land on one of its bigger moons, one of the four first spotted by Galileo, but Io is one giant volcano, Europa holds the possibility of life and we’d have to ask whether we could risk contaminating it, and Callisto and Ganymede are bathed in Jupiter’s intense magnetic field. The other gas giants aren’t much better as far as human exploration is concerned.

In fact, moving outward, Pluto, former planet, could be our best next step. Terrifyingly cold and more than four and a half billion miles from the Sun it’s a solid, rocky island rich with water, at what we used to think of as the edge of the solar system. It’s even less like Earth than Mars is, and yet Pluto is the New York of space exploration: if we can make it there we can make it almost anywhere.

Before I went back in I turned to look at the rest of the sky, as much of it as I could see, anyway, considering boundaries and limits, and how they constantly shift in a universe in motion.

Look Up Uranus.

Uranus and Neptune in the constellation Capricorn. Picture made with the SkyView app.

On March 13th, 1781 the composer, musician, and amateur astronomer William Herschel looked through his telescope and realized what he’d initially thought was a comet was, in fact, a previously unknown planet. It was the first planet discovered in modern times and, after a lot of discussion, would eventually be named Uranus, after the primordial Greek god of the sky. Although it had been observed since ancient times it was so distant and so difficult to see it was assumed to be a star. The discovery that it was a planet is why I think Uranus deserves special recognition. March 13th should be designated Uranus Day.

Uranus is distinctive in a lot of ways and, among the gas giants, can be easily overlooked. It’s not as big as Jupiter. It’s not as stormy as Neptune, although oddities in the orbit of Uranus provided clues that there was another planet beyond it, making Neptune the first planet discovered without direct observation. Although Uranus has rings they aren’t as spectacular as Saturn’s. In fact astronomers didn’t know it had rings until 1977 when, in an attempt to judge the exact size or Uranus, they watched it pass in front of a star and the star appeared to blink. With a radius of more than thirty-three thousand miles and a mass fourteen times greater than Earth you could fit a lot in Uranus.

Uranus has an axial tilt of 97.7 degrees so from Earth it appears that its rings go up and down rather than sideways. It also means that Uranus always has one pole pointed toward the sun. Astronomers think that at some point in the past a massive object slammed into Uranus, knocking it on its side. It takes Uranus eighty-four Earth years to orbit the sun, and yet Uranus spins so fast its day is just seventeen hours and fourteen minutes.

Uranus has a distinctive deep blue green color. This is because Uranus contains so much methane. Uranus has twenty-seven known moons, two of which, Titania and Oberon, are the eighth and ninth largest known moons in the solar system, and were discovered by Herschel. There’s a possibility that icy moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn harbor life. Could there be life orbiting Uranus? It’s unlikely but that’s one of many mysteries of Uranus.

Another mystery of Uranus is whether it has a solid or liquid core. Like the other gas giants Uranus doesn’t have a solid surface, but, unlike Jupiter and Saturn its gases are icy and cold. Uranus absorbs more energy from the sun than it generates. It’s 1.84 billion miles from the sun, and it takes sunlight two hours and forty minutes to reach Uranus.

In January 1986 when Voyager 2 passed Uranus astronomers thought it was a boring planet without much going on, but the spacecraft would discover ten new moons and provide a better understanding of the rings.

And there’s still so much about Uranus we don’t know. At one time scientists thought the enormous pressures might turn carbon in Uranus’s atmosphere into giant diamonds. Now the thinking is that those pressures might produce diamonds but crush them, creating diamond rainfall. Still we don’t know whether this even happens. There’s so about Uranus to probe that I think it really is one of the most interesting planets there is, and Uranus Day is something we can all get behind.