Sunday, August 12, 2012

Look for Jupiter in Taurus (and a few final Perseids)

If you followed the links in the previous post, you found a good video from Sky & Telescope discussing the motion of Mars and Saturn in the western sky after sunset (near the star Spica), as well as discussing the Perseid meteor showers which have been dazzling in the evening sky for the past few nights.  There was also a link to a previous blog post showing the location of Perseus and the Pleiades.

You may have seen some of the beautiful meteors that lit up the night sky over the weekend.  Although the Perseids have now peaked, there may still be some jetting around in the vicinity of Perseus and the other beautiful constellations that dominate the eastern sky in the hours before sunrise.  This excellent meteor shower guide from EarthSky contains discussion of the prospects for seeing Perseids the night of August 13, as well as some terrific photos that readers sent in of meteors that they saw in the past couple days.

Even if you don't see any more meteors, it is still worth while to rise a few hours before sunrise if possible and enjoy the view to the east of Jupiter and Venus aligned in the east, surrounded by important constellations, truly a breathtaking spectacle. 

The diagram above shows the lineup for a viewer looking to the east around 4:30 in the morning on August 13 (that's when I was watching Perseids on August 12, when the view was much the same although the moon was slightly higher).  The waning crescent moon will be the easiest landmark to start with, rising in advance of the sun (which is rapidly overtaking it enroute to a new moon on August 17).  The two bright planets of Jupiter and Venus show the general line of the ecliptic, glowing like jewels in a string on either side of the moon, Jupiter above and Venus closer to the horizon.

From Jupiter, if you look closely, you can easily perceive the most important stars of the constellation Taurus, especially the "V"-shaped Hyades and the two points of the "horns" (each arm of the "V" of the Hyades points to one such tip -- see diagram above).  Jupiter will be situated between the Hyades and the two horn-tip points (located closer to the upper arm of the "V" of the Hyades than to the horn-tips).

Above the Hyades you should be able to clearly make out the silvery net of the Pleiades, and if you pull out your binoculars you can observe them in all their beauty.  

Moving your gaze from the Pleiades towards your left, between the Pleiades and the "W"-shaped constellation Cassiopeia, you should come across the stars of Perseus.  His brightest stars make up the trapezoidal shape of his torso, and you should be able to make out his outstretched arms (on the "Cassiopeia side" of Perseus).  Additionally, you should be able to see the bright outline of Auriga the Charioteer "below" Perseus (not included in the diagram above for simplicity but discussed extensively in this previous blog posts, with diagrams to help you find him).  Perseus marks the direction to focus on for any remaining Perseids.

However, even after the Perseids are over, this beautiful lineup of Venus and Jupiter among the constellations described above is worth getting up early to observe.  We have discussed previously the theory, advanced by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend in their 1969 text Hamlet's Mill, that ancient myths often encode descriptions of the motions of the planets (the gods) as they wander through the background of the fixed stars.

If they are correct, then we should expect to find some trace in ancient mythology of the passage of the planet Jupiter through the constellation Taurus, as is taking place right now and clearly visible in the eastern sky.  Is there a story in which Jupiter (or Zeus) turns into a bull, perhaps?  Sure enough, there is the well-known story of Zeus and Europa, in which Zeus turns into a bull and abducts the princess Europa, carrying her across the sea to become the Queen of Crete (she bore Zeus three sons: Minos, Sarpedon, and Rhademanthos).

If you doubt that such ancient myths actually encode celestial events such as the passage of a planet through a constellation of the zodiac, take a look at the discussion here about the story of Ares and Aphrodite being caught in a net, or the discussion here about Zeus unsuccessfully pursuing Aphrodite and Aphrodite being seduced by Hermes.