Early morning conjunction
08 Jul 2012
Most of the sky events you read about here take place in the evening when most of us can enjoy them without too much effort. But there is a phenomenon happening next Sunday (July 15) which will force most of us to wake up before the crack of dawn. It will be greatly worth the little effort it takes to drag yourself out of bed and look towards the eastern skies.
On that morning in the four o'clock hour, a satellite, an inner planet, an outer planet, and a star will be gathered in one place near the eastern horizon like some kind of celestial conference. Here are the attendees:
The Moon has finally made its way around our planet to once again meet up with the sun. We often see the crescent Moon when it is in the west, in the evening skies, the crescent facing towards the west. But to see the crescent facing eastwards means it is headed towards, not away from, the sun. In just a few days after this gathering it will pass by the sun and by next week will be a crescent again in the western evening skies.
Jupiter is the bright dot at the top of the quadrangle. The gas giant, the heavyweight champion of the sun's system, plods around the sun ever so slowly, taking 12 earth years to go around our star just once. We, with a faster, inside orbit, are swinging around to catch up with it now. Because of this, over the next months Jupiter will rise earlier and earlier each day until finally it is in a position where we can more conveniently see it in our evening skies.
The dimmer star on the right side of the formation is Aldebaran. This great star only looks weak compared to the other three because it is so inconceivably far away. Located at more than 65 light years away - over 380 trillion miles - it is an "orange giant" almost a hundred times bigger than our sun. It is the reddish "heart" of the bull Taurus. Aldebaran, like Jupiter, will rise earlier and earlier during the night until months from now Taurus' heart will beat in our evening skies.
Our last member, the ever so bright "star," is actually Venus. Remember just weeks ago she travelled by the sun, in front of it, for all to see. Now she is on this side of the sun blessing our dawns as the Morning Star. Because of orbit and proximity, Venus is at its brightest now, just in time for this exquisite encounter.
This is certainly not the last gathering - or "conjunction" - of planets and stars and moons, but it is certainly one of the prettiest we will have for a while. Try and make the effort to get up early next Sunday to see it. Get up, find it, heave a great sigh at its beauty, then get back to bed.