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21, 2003: John Steinbeck called it "the hour of the pearl."
It's "the gray time," he wrote in Cannery Row, "after the light has come
and before the sun has risen--the interval between day and night when time
stops and examines itself. No automobiles are running then. The streets are
silent of progress and business. And the rush and drag of the waves can be
heard as they splash in among the piles of the canneries."
Photographer Sho Endo snapped
this picture of Venus rising above the waves of Japan's Pacific coast before
sunrise on Jan. 11, 2003.
That was 50 years ago. Nowadays the hour of the pearl is announced by
ringing alarm clocks. It's when you drag yourself out of bed, rush to get
dressed, grab a hasty breakfast. And what's that distant roar? The sound of
So let's call it something different: "The hour of the planets."
There are two bright ones in the dawn sky this month: Venus and Jupiter.
Even after all the other stars and planets have begun to fade against the
brightening sky, these two are absolutely eye-catching. And it only takes a
moment to enjoy them as you dash out the door to work or school.
First, glance toward the southeast in the direction (more or less) of the
rising sun, and you'll spot Venus (magnitude -4.4) shining 140 times
brighter than a first magnitude star. Venus is often mistaken for a UFO or a
landing airplane, but it you pause for a long look, you'll see that it
doesn't move like either of those. It's as still as the morning streets of
Cannery Row. (Actually, Venus does move; it rises slowly like the Sun. Keep
an eye on it from dawn onward. If you know where to look, you can see Venus
in broad daylight.)
Next, spin around and look west. There's Jupiter (magnitude -2.4), about
the same distance above the horizon as Venus is. Although Jupiter is much
bigger than Venus, it is 6 times farther away from Earth and correspondingly
dimmer. Even so, Jupiter is 25 times brighter than a first magnitude
Venus and Mars are easy to spot in southeastern sky at sunrise. Note that
Mars and the nearby star Antares both have a coppery hue and are easily
confused. A similar
map of the western sky shows where to look for the giant planet Jupiter.
If you do have time to spare, and a small telescope, take a closer look
at Jupiter and Venus.
Jupiter is very rewarding. You'll be able to see its rust-colored cloud
belts with ease. First-time observers often note that the planet looks
squashed--wider along the equator than between the poles. Is there something
wrong with the telescope? No. Jupiter really is flattened. Although Jupiter
is 70 times bigger around the middle than Earth, it spins more than twice as
fast; a day on Jupiter lasts only 9 hours and 55 minutes. This rapid spin is
what gives Jupiter its equatorial bulge. Small telescopes will also reveal
up to four "stars" around Jupiter. Galileo using only a primitive spyglass
saw them first in 1610. They are Jupiter's moons: Io, Europa, Callisto and
Ganymede. Finally, the
Great Red Spot
(GRS)--a cyclone twice as wide as Earth--is also frequently visible.
Experienced observers note that larger (10-inch) telescopes and clear steady
skies are essential for good views of the GRS.
Amateur astronomers Dennis Pang and Eric
Ng of Hong Kong captured this image of Jupiter on January 18, 2003,
using a 10-inch telescope and an inexpensive digital camera.
Although Venus is brighter than Jupiter, it seems less impressive through
a telescope. Why? Because Venus is enveloped by thick and utterly
featureless clouds. For many years, scientists suspected that Venus's clouds
hid a tropical paradise, but now we know, thanks to radar studies and
Russian spacecraft that have landed there, that Venus is a hellish
wasteland. The surface of Venus is dryer than any desert on Earth and hot
enough to melt lead. And those clouds? They are laced with sulfuric acid.
None of that is apparent in the eyepiece of your telescope, though. Venus
looks rather pacific and bland. You might note that Venus isn't a complete
circle. Like the Moon, Venus has phases, and at the moment it is waxing
gibbous, a little more than a half full. More than anything, though, Venus
looks like a distant pearl: white, serene, a relaxing sight.
Maybe Steinbeck was right. It is the hour of the pearl, after all.
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In recent weeks, Jupiter has become a prominent evening planet, too. Look
for it in the east after 8:00 p.m. local time. Also, mark Tuesday, January
28th, on your calendar. That's when the slender crescent Moon (with
Earthshine) will glide by Venus in the morning sky--a lovely pairing.