Pixel Tracker

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

 
 
 
 
Astronomy

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.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Email
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership
×

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.