July 1 – Conjunction Junction

Today’s factismal: Markduk will meet Ishtar in their heavenly boudoir tonight.

If you ask an astronomer what the three brightest stars in the sky are, odds are she’ll tell you “Canopus in Carinae (the Keel), Sirius in Canis Major (the Big Dog), and Sol in the Solar System”. But if you had asked an ancient Babylonian the same question, odds are he would have told you that they were Marduk (which we know as Jupiter), Nergal (which we know as Mars), and Ishtar (which we know as Venus). That’s because when the Babylonians were busy inventing astronomy, they didn’t know the difference between a planet and a star; they thought that any light in the sky was a “star”. But they were able to track the “stars” and to keep track of their travels. Babylonians were among the first to predict such things as eclipses and solstices and conjunctions – times when two or more planets would appear to come very near in the sky.

Jupiter, known to teh Babylonians as Marduk (My camera)

Jupiter, known to teh Babylonians as Marduk
(My camera)

That last was the most interesting thing to them, outside of comets which were unpredictable and therefore had to be terrible harbingers of doom. How important were conjunctions? Out of the seventy tablets of Babylonian astrology known as the Enuma anu elil, a full twenty deal with the meaning of planetary conjunctions. And that means that the Babylonians would have loved the sky tonight!

If you go out just after sunset tonight and look low in the western sky, you will see two bright “stars” just touching. They were Marduk and Ishtar to the Babylonians; to us, they are Jupiter and Venus. Two of the brightest planets in the sky look as if they are colliding. To the Babylonians, it would have seemed to be an omen of amazing importance. To us, it is just cool. Now, even though Jupiter and Venus look like they are colliding, in truth, they are about four and a half times farther apart than the Earth is from the Sun, a distance of some 400 million miles!

Even better, if you watch long enough, you may get to see a shooting star. That’s because the Earth is crossing the path of comet Pons-Winnecke which sprays out tons of dust and ice during each of its 6.37 year-long orbits. As the cometary debris hits the atmosphere, it burns up as a small meteor. And if you’d like to cap the evening with some citizen science, why not count the meteors using NASA’s Meteor Counter App? It is free to download from Apple and Google and is easy to use. The data you find will be used by NASA to help protect us from the possibility of a really bit meteor hitting the Earth and becoming a terrible harbinger of doom. (See – those Babylonians were completely crazy!) To learn more, peek at:
http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2011/13dec_meteorcounter/

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