Look! Your piggy bank is gorging itself on coins! You’ll soon have enough pennies to buy yourself a delicious chocolate chip muffin! Yesssssss!!!!!
Did you know it’s possible to see planets? I’m talkin’ nothin’, but usin’ those squishy optics inside of your face. No telescopes. No binoculars. Only squishy optics (eyes).
See that planetary hit-list? Those are all the naked-eye planets. The ancients watched these mysteriously nomadic points of light and guess what? They didn’t have any fancy gear! Nope, no way, didn’t need it, couldn’t afford it, the ancients used their biological optics, which were plugged directly into their brain.
First things first: how the hell can you tell the difference between a star and planet?
I mean…it seems impossible, right? They both are shiny, they both are points of light, so…**shrugs shoulders**…what are we to do?
I’ll tell you what we’re going to do—look for the shine!
Take a look at the above image: which point of light is the planet? It’s okay! Take a moment. I’ll wait…
…Have you figured it out? What was that? Did you say, “the bright point of light”? Congratulations! You located Venus! The brightest of the Visual Five. Take a closer look. Do you notice anything else? Go on. Take a look. I’ll wait…
…Stumped?—pay special attention to the rays of light: notice how Venus appears to have a spiky appearance? That’s the shine, baby! Let’s have a look at another example:
The planetary spikiness is unmistakable.
Stars don’t look like that—take a gander at the miniscule points of light all around Venus. Yup. You guessed it! Those are stars. Notice how meek they are compared to Venus? Pathetic. Stars will all ways appear as twinkling compact points of light—no matter their apparent magnitude.
Easy, right? Now that you know how to visually tell the difference between a star and planet, you could now learn about the nature of the solar system. That’s right! We are going real deep, so put on your diving helmet—you’re going to need it. Trust me.
The planets journey across the ecliptic reveals dark secrets about our solar system and the nature of Earth’s orbit around the sun.
No shit Sherlock, the planets don’t just zip-zap across the sky—they jog along a specific path, which happens to cut through the zodiacal constellations, and only the zodiacal constellations. Period. End of story. The image above shows Jupiter jogging along the ecliptic and it’s heading (eastward) toward the eye of Taurus (Aldebaran).
Don’t worry! I summoned a massive red arrow, which politely points the way (you can thank me later).
The planets are whispering a secret and it sounds a little like this: Since any planet can be found along the ecliptic, that tells us the solar system is neatly arranged into a plane. Not only that—some of the planetary movement is caused by Earth’s orbit. If you go outside every night and observe Jupiter at the same time, you’ll notice it start to creep eastward along the ecliptic—this direct motion is caused by Jupiter’s orbit.
See what I mean? In the image above, Jupiter has traveled past the eye of Taurus, and is heading parallel (eastward) toward the Pleiades. I’ll let you figure out which point of light is Jupiter.
You won’t notice this kind of change over night, so don’t expect it. The solar system has a rhythm, and in order to become attuned—all that’s needed is patience.
We are literally swimming up to our necks in profound shit…glad you have that diving helmet? I left mine at home! Damn it!
Things are getting complicated: we started out gawking at pretty planets, then fell down the astronomical rabbit hole: ecliptic, Earth’s orbit, direct motion, retrograde motion, visual magnitudes…it never ends—welcome to astronomy.
So the descent continues…
What? Thought we were finished?
The image above showcases a conjunction of Venus and Mars. Not a particularly rare event, but worthy of taking a look at. Any of the Visual Five could be seen in the sky together—sometimes all at once!
The moon can join in on the fun! The image above is a conjunction of the moon, Jupiter, and Venus.
You can use planetary conjunctions as a convenient way to learn about…planets. Yeah. Mercury, for example, tends to be an elusive planet, and doesn’t travel far from the sun, which means observing Mercury is a pain in the ass. You’ve been warned.
Observing the planets doesn’t have to cost you anything and there is plenty to see (and learn). If you’re willing to put in the time, then you’ll become aligned with the solar system’s dance, swinging around and around, as the cosmic orchestra silently hums in your ear.
Well? Have you seen all of the Visual Five? What about a planetary conjunction? Have you observed a planet’s direct motion? Watching the planets is cheaper than sitting through the latest summer blockbuster action flick.
Oh! By cheaper, of course, I mean—free.