Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Will I Get Up Before Sunrise To See 5 Planets?

Today was one of those unexpectedly joyous days because my husband surprised me with a 4-day stargazing and hot spring-exploring trip to the California and Nevada deserts. We'll be heading for Pahrump, NV on Thursday and use that as a staging area for various night- / daytime forays and explorations. Death Valley is on the menu, and so is the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort.

Yet what I really look forward to - after 18 months spent in urban environs - is the lack of light pollution and unobstructed views of the skies. The weather looks favorable for the entire time and I'm hoping for spectacular celestial displays. Perhaps a glimpse of the Milky Way, which I have not seen with the naked eye since...oh,...let's just say a trip to the Canary Islands last century. 

I especially hope to get a great view of the current 5-planet alignment in the early morning skies:

Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

In a rare alignment, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter will form an arc in the pre-dawn southern skies, about 45 minutes prior to sunrise. In the CA and NV deserts, that's about 6:00 - 6:30 a.m. Antares in the constellation Scorpio will also join this early morning celestial dance, as will Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.

Image credit: Sky & Telescope

Another graphic of the early-morning planetary and celestial line-up that will remain visible until late February.

Image credit: New York Times

The diagram above shows that just because we can see five planets at the same time they are not the same distance away from Earth. The diagram illustrates the orbits of Saturn, Jupiter (planet name cut off in graphic), Mars, Venus and Mercury around the sun as well as the planets' relative distances from Earth. If I look at these five planets this weekend, and consider their relative distances from me, I wonder which one will appear brightest?

(Related science fact: Planets are not intrinsically bright. We can see them in the night skies because they reflect the light of our sun).

Finally, I wonder if I will be able to locate the new Starman constellation, named in honor of the late, great David Bowie, who showed all of us how to reach for the stars.

Image credit: The Weathernetwork
I'll already be looking for Mars and Spica, so maybe The Starman will reveal itself to me this weekend ~