When stars (and planets) align

When stars (and planets) alignEvery 13 months, Jupiter comes into opposition — the point in our orbit where Earth sits between the sun and our solar system’s largest planet. Because of the frequency of the conjunction, and the generally lackluster appearance (Jupiter is only barely brighter to the naked eye), it tends not to get the same amount of press as some of the more rare and dramatic astral events.

But it’s still pretty cool. Jupiter is close enough that with a low-end telescope — or even a pair of binoculars — you can view the four Galilean moons lined up around the gas giant. (By the way — although peak viewing was a few days ago, you still have a couple more nights to see this display in the southeastern quadrant of our sky between about 9 p.m. and 4 a.m.).

On Monday night our friend Mike Petersen (literally a rocket scientist) was able to zero in on Jupiter with his backyard telescope (without a sight, even!) so that our family could get a look. Even centuries after its advent, this device never ceases to amaze me in its ability to give us so intimate a look at something millions of miles away.

Like most named objects in space, Jupiter holds its own special place in our collective consciousness. Nearly 500 years ago, Galileo was able to put together his own telescope that allowed him to see not just the massive planet, but also Europa, Ganymede, Io and Callisto in orbit around it. His discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter was pivotal in shifting the widely held view of his day that Earth was the center of the universe.

In the ensuing five centuries, our technological capabilities have expanded to capture stunningly detailed photos of each of these moons. These images have informed our understanding of the universe and fueled our curiosity to explore it first hand. I like to think that it won’t be that many centuries before that dream becomes a reality.

We live in this magical age, where we have the ability to predict and observe these cosmic events, but also the unexplored potential ahead of new and exciting discoveries. One of the best things for me about living in this age of discovery is vicariously experiencing the way our growing capabilities captivate my own children. They have not known a world where Mars rovers did not exist. They probably will take for granted seeing a robot land on a moon of Jupiter in their lifetimes.

One final reflection: I always thought that waiting for the stars (or in this case, the planets) to align was just the human way of putting off something we didn’t really expect to achieve. Without luck or divine intervention, our dreams remain locked safely in our imaginations — where they neither require our effort nor suffer the harsh effects of reality.

But I’m starting to believe I’ve misunderstood celestial alignment all these years. I think the execution of our plans is not so much hampered by a lack of aligning factors as it is by our inability to always see the opportunities and marvels of creation that swirl around us all the time — whether those alignments occur in the cosmos or here on Earth.

— Rebecca Neipp

P.S. If you are not already following Chet Steele Photography (which showcases the work of this excellent local amateur photographer) you should check out his capture of Jupiter and its moons.

Pictured: Satellite photos courtesy of NASA JPL

Story First Published: 2019-06-14