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Boonville Daily News - Boonville, MO
  • Looking Up: What if all the planets lined up?

  • Venus and Jupiter will be staring at us like a pair of headlights later this week. If you haven’t noticed, these two worlds are getting mighty close in the evening sky.

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  • Venus and Jupiter will be staring at us like a pair of headlights later this week. If you haven’t noticed, these two worlds are getting mighty close in the evening sky.
    Just look west. You can’t miss them, unless of course the landscape is in the way or there are clouds! Venus is the brighter one, on the right.
    This is an unusually close conjunction, with Jupiter passing only 3 degrees to the left of Venus, between March 12 and 16. That’s less than the apparent width of your fist if you hold your arm out straight towards the sky.
    Can you imagine if the planets passed so close together that one actually went behind the other, or close that the two appeared as one extra brilliant “star”? Some have conjectured that the Star of Bethlehem was a close pairing of planets.
    What if all the planets lined up, one behind the other, from Mercury out to Neptune or even Pluto? Has that ever occurred?
    One thing we should point out - take no heed to doom-sayers that our world would end if planets did align so close. This simply has no basis in scientific fact. The combined gravitational pull from all other planets would still be negligible, given the vast distance between each of them. Besides that, the pull of all the planets together is nothing compared to our great star, the sun, which tugs on us all the time in our merry orbital path. The solar system’s best is no more a threat than the billions of stars out there and all the combined gravity they exert; the distances, again, are so incredibly far.
    The chances of all the planets aligning in a perfectly straight line out from the sun is complicated by the fact the orbits of each planet are tilted in respect to the others. Except for Pluto, the planets all travel close - but necessarily exactly - on the same path around the sky, a path we call the ecliptic, where the sun appears as seen from Earth. The planets - as well as our moon - out to Neptune are close to the same plane. If they were EXACT, planets would eclipse each other regularly, and we’d have lunar and solar eclipses every month.
    According to calculations presented by Dr. Donald Luttermoser of East Tennessee State University (www.etsu.edu/physics), the odds of each planet lining up is once in 180 TRILLION years. That’s a number that would make everyone gasp in trying to imagine except a federal budget cruncher or an astronomer of course.
    There are occasions, however, when two planets come extremely near one another, and fall within the same telescope eyepiece field. On Dec. 21, 2020, for example, Jupiter and Saturn will be only six minutes of arc (6’) apart. For comparison, the full moon is approximately 30’ in apparent width, or one-half degree. The apparent width of Jupiter as seen in a small telescope is close to a half a minute of arc (or 30 second of arc: 30’).
    Page 2 of 2 - Readers are welcome to send pictures of Venus and Jupiter close together to news@neagle.com. Please indicate your name, where you were at the time (town and state), when you took it, and anything you wish to add. If you frame your shot with the landscape - a church steeple, trees, etc., the picture can be even more interesting. They will be considered for the next column.
    For a nice graphic illustration of the positions of these planets through the month, and when the crescent Moon will be seen near them, visit earthsky.org.
    Last-quarter moon is on March 14.
    Keep looking up!
     
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