Sunday, March 05, 2000

Solar Dance 2: Jupiter-Saturn Conjuction and the 3-dimensional Solar System

Several times each year, vistas of our sister planets appear that can help us feel earth as one piece of a three-dimensional solar system. From February through summer of the year 2000, there was a confluence of sky passages that offered an unusually vivid opportunity to enter into the physicality of space. That is when I wrote this essay; go back now with me five years, to that wintery sky....

Jupiter and Saturn are nearing conjunction; Jupiter has been "catching up" to Saturn and is preparing to pass in front of it in early spring. To the disappointment of many, the actual passing will occur when these two gas giants are not in the night sky; they'll be lost in the glare of the sun. To the standard way of thinking, they will not be part of the sky for this time. But in fact, of course, they'll simply be near, and briefly behind, the sun from our view. Which means that they will indeed be there in the sky, near the sun, during the day. We won't be able to see them right then, but we can watch as they slowly fade into the sunset glow during early spring, and then in early summer as they slowly emerge again in the early morning sky. By watching through several months, they will not disappear as they meet; they will be there, every day, as we await the chance to greet them again some early morning in early summer.

And the sun, villain in this play, hiding the show of the great gaseous rendezvous, put on a show of its own that spring. Nearing the peak of its eleven-year cycle of activity, modern satellites and imaging techniques offered an unprecedented look at far more than an increase in sunspots.

At least once a week, the sun’s disc is dwarfed by massive solar flares and "coronal mass ejections", each one now visible the next day on the internet. To become aware of this secret life of the sun is to enter into a new wonder at that disc of white that arcs habitually across the sky each day.

As we watch the sun’s glow swallow Jupiter and Saturn during March and April twilight, we can, for the first time, enter the sky as it is: these planets, and the stars beyond, are not "setting" earlier, disappearing in some abstraction of seasonal sky charts. Rather, we can watch and feel the way the earth is spinning ‘round the sun, so that the sun gradually moves across the cosmic sea, passing briefly in front of the more distant conducting pair. And we can begin, too, to notice how briefly, really, the sun remains in any one part of the sky, and thus have a physical knowledge of the orbiting earth and the way its yearly cycle offers us an annual 360-degree panorama of the cosmos beyond.

Then, too, there is the nearby moon and distant galactic sea. Once a month, as the dynamic duo move into their conjunction, they will be joined in the dusk (then dawn) sky by the crescent moon. Beautiful, of course. . . and all the more so for being close by the Pleiades, one of the sky’s most famous star clusters. For the rest of winter and spring, this dazzling bit of sky choreography will take place just ahead of Orion, which rides high in the sky above this twilight show. With a bit of direction, the stars in the vicinity of the Jupiter And Saturn Show can welcome us into our stellar neighborhood. There are very close stars, distant megastars, nurseries of starbirth, adolescent clusters burning fiercely (the Pleiades among these), and familiar constellations (handy, but mere two dimensional abstractions) dissolving into the concrete patterns of the galaxy’s spiral landscape. . . . this is all easily visible, in the weeks and months to come.

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