Monday, February 8, 2016

When The Planets Align

"I don't pretend to understand the Universe -- it's a great deal bigger than I am" - Thomas Carlyle, Life of Carlyle

Back last April, I wrote a post about how very much I enjoy running in the early morning, and although I positively HATE cold weather, the best part of running in early winter mornings is that I get to run with the dark, morning sky (you can read that post here). You see, I am a secret astronomy nerd. There, I've said it. No, I don't have telescopes in my backyard and I don't have a glow-in-the-dark map of the Universe on my bedroom ceiling (but it would be cool). But you sure can see a whole heck of a lot more when the sky is dark than you can when the closest star to us is high in the sky at noon.

So, as the sky of my morning runs got darker and darker in the lengthening of the to Fall nights, I greeted Orion, which to me signals the cold weather, so we have a strained relationship. He rises early in the evening, so by the time I run the following morning, he is high in the sky sporting 3 of the 10 brightest stars in the heavens, and that in itself makes him stand out pretty easily. With the dark, cold skies this past fall and winter, I also got to see a couple of meteor showers. Now, those are pretty tricky to see while you're running because...well, it's pretty obvious that running while looking up is not too safe, especially for someone who has trouble keeping his balance walking across the living room floor. But, if you're willing to actually stop on your run for a few minutes, it is so impressive to see a piece of stardust the size of a grain of sand streak across half the sky in a flaming display reminiscent of those sparklers I used to play with as a kid. And as I also mentioned in my post almost a year ago, you really have to subscribe to this site so you know when you can see the International Space Station zoom across overhead (it's the brightest thing in the sky). Probably goes over Birmingham about 4-5 times a month. I'll plan some of my runs around the ISS's schedule - it's that cool!

But, probably the cherry-on-the-cake is happening right now and will be going on for the next two weeks and I wanted to be sure you all knew about the treat waiting for you outside. From when we were kids in elementary school, we (I have to be careful here because I was taught in the pre-Sputnik age) were taught there were 9 planets circling the same sun that keeps us warm. Well, if you look up early in the pre-dawn morning, all five naked-eye planets known since antiquity are visible at once. This is actually pretty cool, and it’s visible from anywhere in the world. Very generally, if you go outside well before dawn (4:30–5 in Birmingham CST) and look south (in the Northern Hemisphere; face north if you’re in the upside-down part of the world), you’ll see the planets lined up across the sky.

I had read that this array was going to be visible, but we've had so many cloudy, rainy mornings lately, I almost forgot about it (it doesn't get much press coverage to remind you), so when I went out this past Thursday, it was a crystal clear morning and I immediately saw above me a very bright "star" that I knew had to be a planet. Knowing Jupiter was the brightest object compared to Venus, and since it was too early for Venus to wake up, it hit me like a dope-slap on the back of the head of what I was looking at (or for). The waning crescent moon (about halfway between a quarter moon and a New Moon) was fairly high up there at about 45 degrees from the horizon. I knew the order from their apparent positions from the Sun in the sky were Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter.So, to the right of the moon (and in order from the far right), I could make out the very bright Jupiter, the rust-colored fainter Mars and then the pretty bright Saturn. A cool thing I found out later is that Pluto was right next to Saturn, but you'd need a telescope to see it. I know, I know, Pluto is not technically a planet, BUT I was taught that it was and I think it got a raw deal, so there! I was looking at ANOTHER planet!

Well, time was a-wastin', and I still had to get this run out of the way and get to work, so down the road I traveled west. When I turned around and faced the slightly illuminating sky, I was surrounded by many trees and couldn't see anywhere close to the horizon. At about halfway home, there was a break in the trees all the way to the ground, and there it was in all it's glorious brightness - Venus! And a little below it, right off the horizon was it's fainter companion, Mercury. I looked above, and without any problem, I could see all five (or six, if you count where Pluto was hiding) of the of the visible planets in our Solar System. Plus, as an added bonus you might not remember, we're standing on another orb, Earth! So, the only ones missing from Al's Celestial Parade were Uranus and Neptune. Wow!

My run wasn't all that great, but you know, all of sudden, running didn't seem like the most important thing going. The sun came up and the planets were gone like a puff of smoke. Oh, they were still there, but all that was left was the memory. No proof. But, I knew they were there because I saw them!

This show will be going on until about February 20th. It hasn't happened in the past 10 years, but if you miss it this time, there will be an encore performance this year from August 13-19. It'll be a lot warmer then, and for you night runners, this time it will be in the evening sky.

If I'm not looking up, I'll see you on the roads and on the trails - Al

"One child lost is too many. One child saved can change the world".