By Amy Sayle, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center
Everyone knows the planets. At least I assumed so until Halloween several years ago.
Some friends and I had decided to participate at the last minute in the large informal parade of thousands that forms every October 31 on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. As a costume is semi-mandatory, we stopped by the planetarium, where I worked, and dug up colorful photographs of the planets to wear around our necks.
This turned out to be a poor costume choice for a perfectionist. First, we had more planets (9, as this preceded Pluto's demotion) than people (5), though it helped that no one wanted to be Uranus.
Second, it was a hopeless task to keep the planets corralled in their proper order from the Sun. Mercury and Neptune may live together in their human life, but they never hang out in the real solar system.
Then, once we were on the street, something distressing kept happening. In addition to being continually upstaged by superior costumes, ones that had clearly not been slapped together ten minutes earlier, many of those passing by wanted to guess our group costume ("it's the planets!"). And they felt compelled to identify each planet.
As a planetarium educator, I should have been thrilled: The public is interested! They care about astronomy!
But to my dismay, most everyone got the planets wrong. All the planets. Even Saturn – the one with the spectacular rings! – was confidently, and mistakenly, identified by an adult passer-by as Jupiter.
What is the lesson from this? I concluded it's that my work as an astronomy educator is far from done (though perhaps it's that our fellow pedestrians were too inebriated to practice accurate planet identification).
In any case, if you're feeling unsure about the planets – especially Saturn – drop by MPSC's next skywatching session. We'll be at Jordan Lake, Ebenezer Church Recreation Area, this Saturday, May 30, from 9-11 p.m. (weather permitting). Come at the beginning for a bonus--the International Space Station is predicted to pass over from 9:03 to 9:08 p.m.
To look at Saturn, start with your unaided eye. It'll be the bright star-like object just to the upper left of the Moon. (Look on another night, and the Moon will have moved on.) Then peer through a telescope to see Saturn's amazing rings.
To be fair, this year Saturn is more confusing than usual. Its rings are oriented more edge on than face on, so they look like little sticks poking out of either side of the main body of the planet. But still nothing like Jupiter.