My mail has included inquiry about the very bright object in the sky before sunrise. It really warms my heart to know that there are people who get up before the sun brightens the sky and take the time to look around. Hoping that there might be many who will do this, I want to inform them of a most beautiful phenomenon taking place in our early morning sky.
That bright object that some have been watching for the past month is the planet Venus. Unless you have high mountains off to your east, you can easily see it by looking a bit south of east on clear mornings. The best time is about one hour before sunrise.If you have been watching Venus for the past couple of weeks, you probably have noticed another bright object (not as bright as Venus) to the lower left of Venus. This is Jupiter. The two planets have been getting closer and closer each morning. This morning, if you happened to see them, they were only six-tenths of one degree apart. What made this morning's view even more impressive was the fact that the thin crescent moon was to the upper right of the pair of planets.
If you missed it this morning, here is the good news. Tomorrow morning, Thursday, the planets will be in even closer conjunction, only one-half degree apart, and the even thinner crescent moon will follow them up in the sky, rising a dozen minutes after the plan-ets. If the weather allows us to see this grouping of bright objects, it will be one of the most beautiful sights ever seen in the sky.
Consider this. During the next quarter century, Venus and Jupiter will be closer together only a half-dozen times, and none of these close pairings will have the moon near by! So, if by now you are considering getting up to see this, please determine firmly to do so. It promises to be an unforgettable sight. All we need is clear weather.
Whether or not you do see this wonderful gathering of objects Thursday morning, I hope you will continue to watch Venus and Jupiter pull apart over the next few weeks: Jupiter will move out higher into the morning sky, away from the upper right of Venus. As you look at them, consider how very long people have been watch-ing these wandering objects of the heavens. For most of human history, people did not understand why planets moved within the band of constellations called the zodiac. They interpreted this mysterious behavior as gods moving through the heavens, looking down on earth. Round and round the zodiac they went, generally eastward, each one moving in a different period. From time to time they would appear to stop drifting eastward, move westward among the stars for a while, then resume the eastward motion again. This strange behavior was a great mystery leading to the conviction that these gleaming objects must, indeed, be deities roaming the heavens.
We have learned a lot since those long-ago times. We know that the movements of the planets result from gravitational forces between the objects of the solar system, and we can accurately predict where each of them will be long into the future. If we want to, we can predict conjunctions of planets, such as the one going on right now in our morning sky, thousands of years into the future.
People will spend large sums and several days to journey to where they can see a total eclipse of the sun. Thursday morning it will be possible to see something that you might find to be as beautiful, and it will cost very little time or money. For full enjoyment of the event, find a place in the country with a good low horizon to the east of southeast. Take a pair of binoculars along and arrive before the planets rise. From northern Utah, the two planets will rise on a low horizon about one hour and 42 minutes before sunrise and the moon will rise within the next 15 minutes. Stay to watch these three magnificent objects rise higher as the sky brightens and takes on color.