One of the joys of having a dog is that, on my early-morning walks, I get to witness the cycle of the seasons. In summertime, the natural world is brightly lit and wide awake as we head out our front door; in winter everything is still dark and drowsy.
Last Friday, at 7:45 AM, the sun was getting ready to rise and I was greeted in the frosty southeastern sky by bright Venus. Close to the poetically misnamed morning “star”, I spotted another planet, slightly reddish in hue.
This is what I saw.
My first guess was that it was Mars, but I wanted to be sure. So I took out my phone and fired up the Star Walk app. To my surprise and delight, the other heavenly object turned out to be our solar system’s mighty giant, Jupiter.
Here’s the tell-all screenshot.
A Matter of Alignment
To my dog’s dismay, I took a moment to stand still and wonder at the vastness of it all. Here I was, on planet Earth, slowly making my way around the sun. And there, side by side in the firmament, were Venus (closer to the sun than I was) and Jupiter (much, much farther out into the solar system).
How far we big-brained bipedal apes have come! It started with our original bafflement at the fact that some heavenly objects seemed to be “wanderers” and did not rotate in the night sky together with the rest of the stars – the word planet derives from the Greek word for “to wander”. And our curiosity and ingenuity have led us to an incredibly detailed understanding of the workings of the solar system and our place in it.
So much so that when I got back home, I could go online and, in a matter of minutes, find this alien’s-eye-view of our neck of the woods. It shows that on January 18, 2019, Earth, Venus and Jupiter were indeed very nearly aligned.
Start at our own trusty “third rock”, look towards Venus, and you’ll find Jupiter lurking in the distance along your line of sight.
What’s Up, Philae?
But there was more. Scroll back and take another look at that screenshot from Star Walk. To the right of Jupiter, you’ll find a curious object named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Don’t let the name scare you away; this comet is an old friend. You’ll remember 67P from November 2014, when it was making news headlines around the world. At the time, ESA (the European Space Agency) celebrated a space-faring first: its Rosetta mission succeeded in landing a probe (called Philae) on a comet.
And now, on this frosty morning, this same probe (a 100-kg hunk of man-made high-tech science goodness) was floating there in space, in my line of sight. Philae was much too small to see, of course—but there is was, at a distance of 933 million km from my eyeballs (source).
This morning (i.e., a few days later) I was out walking the dog again, and Venus and Jupiter were still gracing the morning sky.
Note the change in their relative positions: in just three days, relative to Venus, Jupiter had already moved a bit to the right. Wanderers indeed…
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