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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 10:23 am | Fair 62º


Dennis Mammana: Planets All Set to Align As Solar System’s Arc Comes into View

You can view planetary “alignment” yourself at dawn this week and next. Click to view larger
You can view planetary “alignment” yourself at dawn this week and next. (Creators.com illustration)

One of the many interesting sights in the sky is one that’s completely invisible — unless, of course, you know just where to look. This week and next, stargazers will have little trouble spotting it ... if they are willing to rise before the sun.

I’m referring to the geometric plane of our solar system. From within, we see this plane as an arc extending across our sky; it represents the path along which the planets, moon and sun journey in front of the much more distant stars.

Astronomers call it the “ecliptic” because it’s only along the path where eclipses can occur.

The ancients recognized this arc as well but didn’t understand its physical significance. They instead devised 12 stellar groupings (the zodiac) to mark its location, and they assigned mystical properties to each grouping and the planets that seemed to wander through them.

Normally, the location of the ecliptic isn’t obvious to anyone but the astronomically savvy. But this week and next, anyone stepping outdoors before sunrise will be able to trace it across the heavens.

At dawn, gaze low toward the eastern sky. You’ll easily spot the brilliant planet Venus. Much closer to the horizon will appear the elusive planet Mercury, with fainter Mars nearby. Connect these three with an imaginary line and you’ve got the beginnings of the ecliptic. (The star Regulus — which just last month appeared quite close to the totally eclipsed sun — appears just below Venus but trillions of miles farther away.)

Continue that arc higher into the sky and you’ll find the waning crescent moon.

A great morning to view this beautiful configuration will be on Sunday, Sept. 17. You’ll find the crescent moon just above Venus. If you look the following morning, the moon’s crescent will be thinner and will have drifted into the middle of the pack.

Folks who only glance at the heavens occasionally will often interpret such a planetary “alignment” as something of supernatural significance. I’m not too worried, though; if ever these worlds do not align, that’s when I’ll become concerned!

If your sky is clear on those mornings, why not try your hand at photographing the celestial scene? You don’t need fancy or expensive equipment — just a camera and tripod will do fine, though a zoom lens will help you produce a larger image.

These bodies will appear low enough in the sky for you to frame the scene with a foreground subject — a dramatic tree, building, sculpture or person, for example. If you shoot around 30 to 45 minutes before sunrise, you can probably trust your camera’s automatic settings.

If you choose to shoot in manual mode instead, try starting at ISO 100 or 200 and shooting ⅓ of a second or so at f-stop 8. You’ll need to adjust your settings as you go, however, since lighting conditions change rapidly at dawn.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different settings and compositions; you can always delete unsatisfactory shots once you examine them later.

If you produce some shots you like, or even if you’re puzzled by something that went wrong, please feel free to drop me a note.

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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