Disappearing Planets

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Disappearing Planets
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How do you hide two giant planets? You don’t need black holes, aliens, or even Harry Potter’s cloak. Instead, all you need is the Sun. And right now, it’s hiding its two biggest planets with its brilliant light.

Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system, with Saturn just behind it. And both of them are at a point in their orbits known as conjunction. They’re passing behind the Sun as seen from Earth, so they’re completely hidden in the Sun’s glare. Saturn had its conjunction yesterday. And Jupiter will follow on Thursday night. But both planets will remain hidden for several weeks.

The “hidden” period is stretched out because the planets are at their farthest point from Earth. When something is far away, it appears to move more slowly than when it’s close by. If you see cars moving on a distant highway, for example, they seem to be just crawling along. But if you pull up to the highway and try to cross it, the cars are moving at a scary clip. Yet the speed on the road hasn’t changed at all — only your distance from it has.

Jupiter and Saturn will begin to pull into the dawn sky next month. Depending on your latitude and other factors, Saturn may climb into reasonable view as early as the 20th. Jupiter trails behind it, but it’s also brighter, so you should be able to pick it out just a few days later. Both planets will be in better view by the middle of March.

Tomorrow: Tiny futures for big stars.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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