Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
By Scott Levine
Last month, we looked to the south to find some of the brightest stars we can see. Sirius is the brightest star in our nights, but is it the brightest object?
Let’s start in the west this week. As another late winter day fades, it won’t be long after sundown before we see two lights through the dusk. Venus, the lower of the two, and Jupiter have been there, steady and brilliant, since late January. After the sun and moon, these planets are the brightest things we can see from Earth. If you look at them and then turn toward your left and compare them to Sirius, it’s amazing to see just how bright they are.
Just like our moon, planets don’t put out any light of their own. What we see is simply sunlight that their thick clouds bounce back in our direction. Also, Jupiter is the biggest planet in our solar system. It’s astoundingly huge, big enough to hold 1,000 Earths.
Venus, while much smaller than Jupiter, is always nearby. If we spend a few seconds looking closely at them, we’ll see the light comes to us from enough points to give them a distinct disc shape. On the other hand, we see only a single point of light from Sirius and other stars.
As this winter has gone on, maybe you’ve noticed the two moving closer together. The ancients noticed this, too. They saw that some stars moved, or wandered, from night to night, relative to each other and to the other “fixed” stars. They had no way of knowing why they were different than the night’s other lights, and they called them “wandering stars.” Our word planet comes from the Greek word for wanderer.
But people grow and science progresses. We’ve learned that these objects are worlds of their own, like ours, and they appear to wander because we’re all moving. What we’re seeing is our point of view changing while we all orbit the sun. Anyone watching from those worlds, too, would see Earth – would see us – move relative to the stars in their sky.
Let’s reach back through the centuries and millennia and watch the story go on, without screens or lenses, like the people before.
Tonight, Feb. 28, we’ll see the planets close together enough that we might be able to barely slide our outstretched pinky finger through the gap between. Then, on Wednesday, Mar. 1, they’ll look like they’re almost touching. Then they’ll leapfrog and change places. When darkness comes on Thursday, Mar. 2, Venus will be higher, and Jupiter will sink toward the horizon.
While we’re here, let’s imagine where they are in space. Venus is about 135 million miles away, but Jupiter is more than a half-billion miles away. It’s far behind Venus, not next to it, as it appears.
It’s sometimes frustrating to hear about interesting happenings in the skies because they often occur late at night or in parts of the world that have a different vantage point. This time, everyone on Earth gets the chance to see something exciting in the early evening without any pressure or planning or exhaustion. We just have to hope for clear skies and look up. I hope you will.
Scott Levine (email@example.com) is an astronomy writer and speaker from Croton-on-Hudson. He is also a member of Westchester Amateur Astronomers, a group dedicated to astronomy outreach in our area. For information about the club including membership, newsletters, upcoming meetings and lectures at Pace University and star parties at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, visit www.westchesterastronomers.org.
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