Saturday, October 24, 2015

Dazzling conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and Mars in the pre-dawn sky

image: (background of stars), Wikimedia commons (Venus, Jupiter and Mars).

The important gods Jupiter and Mars and goddess Venus are staging a stunning confabulation in the early morning sky beneath the majestic form of the Lion, and if it is at all possible for you to do so, I highly encourage everyone to make the effort to rise early (two to two-and-one-half hours before sunrise should suffice)  and get to a location with a fairly dark sky and unobstructed views.

For observers in in the north-of-tropical latitudes of the northern hemisphere, observation times between 5:00am and 6:00am are ideal.

Not only are these planets particularly dazzling right now, but the pre-dawn sky is positively bursting  at this time of year with some of the most glorious stars and constellations that we on earth have available to us.

When you go outside in the pre-dawn hours right now and look towards the south [all instructions in this post are written from the perspective of an observer in the northern hemisphere; southern-hemisphere brothers and sisters please adjust all references accordingly, with my apologies for my northern-hemisphericentricity], the constellation Orion will be passing his highest point on his arc above the horizon at around 4:45am on the morning October 25th (a few minutes earlier each day after that, until he eventually makes his way into the "prime-time" viewing hours before midnight during our winter months), and from his high place at or near the top of his path, Orion will be surrounded by a host of other celestial luminaries and figures of great beauty and importance.

Below is a screen-shot from the open-source planetarium app showing the pre-dawn sky as it will look from the latitude of about 35.6N at around 5:30am on the morning of 25 October, facing generally towards the south (east is to the left and west is to the right when we face south):

You can see that Orion with his distinctive three-star belt and hourglass shape of bright stars has already passed his transit point (his highest point, due south above the red letter "S" that is shown down at the horizon) and is proceeding downwards to the west, but still quite high in the sky. To the left of him is the shining band of the Milky Way galaxy, angling upwards slightly towards the right as it climbs towards the north, and just at its edge is the star Sirius -- the brightest fixed star in our heavens (Orion's belt points towards it if you extend the line of the belt's three stars to the "left").

Orion's outstretched arm towards the west is clearly visible holding its bow, and above this is the distinctive "V" of the Hyades, which form the "jawbone" of the Bull of Taurus.  Above Orion to the other side (left as we face the south) are the linear forms of the Twins of Gemini, with their heads marked by the two bright stars Pollux (brighter and lower) and Castor (dimmer and higher, stacked almost directly above Pollux), and then as we proceed towards the eastern horizon (where the sun will be rising) we pass over Cancer the Crab (difficult to spot but with the assistance of this blog you can find Cancer and its distinctive Beehive Cluster) and encounter the rising form of the mighty Lion, with the breathtaking Jupiter and Venus just beneath, and further down reddish and sullen Mars. 

Below is the same screen-shot as that presented just above, but this time with the constellations and planets just described marked for your easy identification:

In this image, which shows the relative positions of the three planets as they will be on the morning of 25 October, Venus appears to be just "below" (closer to the horizon from) Jupiter, although please note that in order to try to present on a flat "page" the arrangement of stars that we see as occupying the "dome" or "vault" of the heavens, stellarium (and hence this screen-shot) curve the horizon upwards as you approach the left and right sides of the rectangular screen or image. In other words, the app is trying to create the effect of a planetarium or night-sky that wraps around the viewer on either side.  

Because of this, if you think about it, that means that all the "stuff" you see on the left and right edges of this image has to be "pulled downwards" in your mind in order to match what you would see if you went outside (or observed the same image while inside an actual vaulted or dome-shaped planetarium), which means that Leo is actually going to be much more vertical in his orientation in the sky than he appears in the "wrapped" (but flattened) image you see reproduced above. (Another way of saying this is to think of an observer standing in silhouette right on the horizon at the very left of the above image: because of the way the horizon is "wrapped," the person would appear to be almost horizontal, with his or her head pointing to the right, even though that person is really standing straight up-and-down. In the same way, Leo seems to be almost horizontal in this image, but when you go out to see him, he will be much more vertical in his orientation).  

What this means for the three planets marked on the planetarium app screen-shot is that they will actually form a triangle with Jupiter and Venus much more on the same level with one another, Venus to the right of Jupiter, and Mars below them.

We can actually see this more clearly if we just use the stellarium app and swivel our view towards the east (which means that now the screen's "wrap" effect will cause Orion and the stars on his side of the screen to warp inwards) and then we will see the Lion and the three planets in an orientation that will resemble more closely what you will see in the morning if you are able to go outside into the pre-dawn night:

Note that we've now rotated our view until we are looking about "due east" (placing the red letter "E" in the center of the horizon, which continues to wrap-upwards on the outer edges, where you still need to use your imagination for the "dome effect"). Stars along the "vault of the sky" directly ahead of us are thus positioned about the same way that you will see them in the morning: stars towards the edges require you to remember that you are looking at what is supposed to simulate a dome.

As you can see, Venus is actually just slightly higher in the sky and to the right of Jupiter, while Mars is a bit below them, clearly visible and forming a kind of "downwards-pointing isosceles triangle" with the brighter two planets.

Leo now appears as he will in the pre-dawn sky: rising up from the eastern horizon at a steep upwards-angle.  As always, the Lion is "geared" to the lower edge of the Big Dipper, which fits it almost like a puzzle piece that is lined up with Leo but separated by a stretch of sky (see previous discussion here). 

Below we see the same screen-shot, this time with labels and outlines for the planets and constellations just mentioned:

As earth progresses on our path around the sun, and as Venus, Jupiter and Mars continue on their own tracks around our central star, these relative positions will continue to change, rather dramatically from day-to-day. Venus will drop past Jupiter and soon be much lower than Jupiter in the sky. For additional diagrams showing the positions of these three divinities, check out this excellent discussion page over at Sky & Telescope

That discussion page shows as well the position of Mercury, who is also visible just before sunrise if you have a good view of the eastern horizon (in the screenshots above, Mercury is not visible yet, because it is still about two hours before sunrise).  

While you are out enjoying the gorgeous conjunction of these celestial wanderers (especially if you are able to go out while it is still dark, such as two hours before sunrise), you will have the opportunity to see the Pleiades, located in Taurus beyond the Hyades (about equal distance beyond the Hyades from Orion -- see the labeled south-facing image above that contains Orion).  You should also be able to continue past the Pleiades and locate Perseus, whose foot is pointing towards the Pleiades. Perseus is not marked in the images on this post, but several previous posts show you how to locate him (see here, here, and here for example).

Perseus figures in many Star Myths that have been discussed in previous posts (the first link in the previous paragraph takes you to one of them), as do the Pleiades, and the V-shaped Hyades mentioned earlier and clearly visible in the pre-dawn sky are also very important in myths the world over. For discussion of the role of the Hyades in the Samson-cycle of myths, see previous posts and video here and here.

In the episodes of Samson's life, an encounter with a lion features quite prominently, as does a certain swarm of bees which make their home in the carcass of the lion after Samson kills the lion with his bare hands. As the above discussion and video about Samson point out, I believe there is abundant evidence which indicates that the lion encountered by Samson is none other than Leo the Lion, and the swarm of bees is the beautiful Beehive Cluster in the zodiac constellation of Cancer the Crab, located almost directly in front of the mouth of Leo.

If you are able to go out to see Jupiter, Venus and Mars when the night is dark and clear, you should be able to make out the tiny silvery cloud of the Beehive with your naked eye. Previous posts have explained some techniques for finding the Beehive: see for example here and the second half of the video here. Once you have located the Beehive with the naked eye, you may also want to have a look at it with binoculars.

Below is a screenshot showing the location of the Beehive, in the constellation of Cancer the Crab and directly in front of the "jowls" of the face of Leo the Lion:

The Beehive is actually more visible outside in the night sky than it appears in the screenshots here. However, due to the way our eyes are designed, you may find that you can "see" the Beehive most easily when you are not looking directly at it. 

Instead, try sweeping the sky rather slowly and deliberately working from Leo towards Gemini, or back from Gemini to Leo. Just after you "pass" by the Beehive, you may see it or sense it or perceive it "out of the corner of your eye," even if you did not see it when you were looking directly towards the Beehive itself.

The constellations visible before dawn at this time of year are well worth the effort to try to view and become familiar with, if it is at all possible for you to do so. All of them figure prominently in multiple Star Myths from around the globe, and all of them are very beautiful in their own unique way. 

The conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and Mars in the eastern part of the sky just below Leo the Lion creates a special bonus and one that can be seen on successive mornings for some time (although it is arguably at its most dazzling right now). 

Planetary conjunctions also figure in ancient mythology -- previous posts have investigated some of these: see for instance here, here and here. The stars and the planets truly form the basis for all the incredible sacred myths, scriptures, and stories bequeathed to humanity as a precious inheritance. 

I believe that these esoteric allegories utilize the awe-inspiring celestial cycles in order to convey to us profound truths which are absolutely essential during our earthly sojourn and intended for our benefit, in much the same way that Mr. Miyagi used different physical motions (such as wax-the-car or paint-the-fence) to impart profound knowledge to Daniel-san, knowledge which was also intended for his benefit and which was essential for him to understand.

I truly believe that the more you are able to become familiar with the beautiful constellations and planets in our night sky, and their intricate cycles and turnings, the more you will be able to appreciate and understand the ancient wisdom which was given to you and to me and to all of humanity at some point now hidden behind the mists of time.