Saturday, January 23, 2021

Observable Sky Wonders

 In past weeks we highlighted an unusual Great Conjunction of gas-giant planets Jupiter and Saturn, a visual treat in our dark evening skies. Reactions to this event ranged along a wide spectrum of excitement. As a former science instructor, memories returned concerning personal strategies for motivating and exciting students with observable astronomical phenomena. 

We favored naked eye astronomy. Systematic non-enhanced observations are useful for distinguishing between real and apparent motions of orbiting Solar System bodies such as the Moon and planets. Guided assignments effectively demonstrated apparent movements of all visible stars around the North Star (360º per day) owing to Earth’s rotation. Slower apparent changes in positions of constellations over several weeks caused by Earth’s revolution were studied and clarified with systematic activities. Our challenge was to distinguish between apparent motions caused by two different real motions. Telescopic astronomy was an occasional instructional bonus to observe Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons, lunar craters, and even the two million light-years distant galaxy Andromeda.

Curiosity about physical laws follows from naked eye observations of familiar Solar System companions. For example, what causes planetary motion in their repetitive, predictable paths? What natural laws govern their motion and speed? What forces act on astronomical bodies? How is an object’s mass related to it’s motion? These issues can be discussed at appropriate times. Instruction, however, must seem natural and not overly pedantic—a challenge for skilled teachers.  

In our day students and parents alike benefit by observing the wonders of our environment uninhibited by studio-produced visual or auditory animations. Virtual reality has assumed a distinctive presence in our modern society. The Online Etymology Dictionary states virtual is “being something in essence or effect, though not actually in fact.” Also, virtual is “not physically existing but made to appear…..” Modern media can produce incredible virtual reality substituting for a wide range of genuine reality, including astronomical events. But, citing a popular cliché, nothing compares with “being there.”

In that spirit, your blogger relates four outstanding in-person astronomy experiences of the last decade, all of which we have previously reported. These episodes have their initial causes in a long-ago divine creation event. In our modern day, many events in our natural world inspire significant personal worship experiences. The object of our worship is the Creator of All Things—the God of the Bible.

We recount several especially memorable celestial events. First, we reference the recent appearance of Comet Neowise in July 2020, one of the most spectacular visible comets of our lifetime. The Sun caused the orbiting comet’s icy matter to vaporize and produce a thin, gaseous comet tail millions of miles in length. Neowise joined an unusual pair of visible comets in the late 1990s—Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp. Many people fail to observe even one naked eye comet in an entire lifetime. Here is our July 2020 link:

Second, fresh in our memory is the most spectacular personal astronomical observation of my entire life. A total solar eclipse favored millions of people as the Earth’s small shadow raced across the surface of the United States from coast to coast on August 21, 2017. For many years I had announced that I looked forward to some day witnessing a total solar eclipse. This type of eclipse roughly matches total lunar eclipses in frequency (just less than one per year) but the physical window of observation, merely a few miles wide, is exceedingly narrow compared with the planet-sized window of observation for a total lunar eclipse. The time of observation for a total solar eclipse ranges from a few seconds to a few minutes but more than half of Earth’s population is able to observe a lunar eclipse. Following is my personal account of the total solar eclipse of 2017:

Third, Earth residents were favored by an unusual total lunar eclipse on the night of 9/27/2015. It was dubbed a supermoon eclipse, described in our 10/18/2015 post. Extra appeal for this lunar eclipse consisted of the knowledge that the eclipse event was the last of a lunar tetrad—an unusual series of four consecutive lunar eclipses in only two calendar years. Read about it here:

Finally, on the night of 4/14/2010 a several hundred pound fireball roared across the sky in southwest Wisconsin a few dozen miles north of our residence. It was a chunk of space rock, a meteor which became a meteorite when small fragments fell to Earth before it completely vaporized. Originally dubbed the Livingston WI meteor, it is now called the Mifflin meteorite. The meteor brightened our dark northwest sky for several seconds. Our family ascribed the light display to an approaching thunderstorm, an incredible explanation because the night was virtually cloudless. The next morning we heard the exciting news: We had experienced a visitor from the far reaches of our solar system!:

All physical matter described above in our four posts—rocky, gaseous, icy, metallic, dusty matter—is leftover material from the initial divine creation event. Some creationists believe that all cosmic creation events have occurred recently and suddenly ex nihilo—out of nothing. To limit creation acts to recent time frames places human limits on the omnipotent, omniscient Creator. When we observe wonders in our heavens we are studying ongoing divine creation processes. We experience emotions of thankfulness and worship for our timeless Creator.




Sunday, January 10, 2021

Lessons from the Great Conjunction

 At present most readers are familiar with the Great Conjunction of December 21, 2021. It was a rare astronomical treat, not to be repeated for many years. Only twice before have Jupiter and Saturn appeared visually closer together in the past 900 years, but only once have Earth residents been able to see such a close planetary meeting in a dark night sky. That occurred in AD 1226! A third exceedingly close “Great Conjunction” occurred on December 21, 2020. In our last post we stressed the scientific value of ordinary planetary studies rather than their prophetic or astrological significance.

Astrology occasionally enjoys renewed popularity. Some sources state young people relish astrology as a tool for introspection or an aide for personal mystic significance.” In my astronomy instruction units students were amused by personal horoscopes printed in some publications. Our mention of horoscopes may have provided class members some entertainment, but the study of astrology is not a scientific discipline to help illustrate real causes and effects. Astrology is a pseudoscience. We endeavored to explain to students the popular meaning of “signs of the zodiac.” Here is a link to our post on “The Bible Zodiac:”


In AD 1226, medieval residents may have seen the rare, exceedingly close planetary conjunction and ascribed astrological significance to the event. Many of that day believed events in the sky influenced human experience. Astrology was a significant scholarly pursuit. A few hundred years later astronomy began its ascension as a scientific discipline. We may connect it with the important Scientific Revolution.

Conjunctions of the gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn occur approximately every 20 years. Jupiter is closer to Earth and travels faster than Saturn. It visually overtakes Saturn every two decades. There are other conjunctions between and among other planets and celestial bodies, but conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn are called “Great Conjunctions.” They occur less often than other conjunctions. The extremely close meeting of these two planets in December 2020 was especially noteworthy. The Wikipedia article entitled “Great Conjunction” is an invaluable source for detailed information on the infrequent celestial meetings of these two important planets. The informational table of close conjunctions of these planets since AD 1200 has multiple columns and rows of information to boggle the mind. One is startled by the statistical analysis—multiple precision details of the gas giant planetary conjunctions.

Late in the 20th century the two giant planets were drawing closer to each other. In the last two decades they repeated their ancient cycle of drawing apart, then approaching each other once again. Following the 2020 conjunction the two planets are once more slowly drawing apart. We are currently only a few weeks past the exceptional Great Conjunction of 12/21/20. Jupiter will lap Saturn once more on 11/4/2040. The planet’s speed in orbit is 29,236 miles/hour compared with Saturn’s 21,675 miles/hour. Jupiter completes one revolution in 11.9 Earth years compared with Saturn’s 29.5 Earth years. These facts appeal to statistically minded observers, reinforcing our belief that the physical world is orderly, coherent, and systematic in accord with the divine characteristics of the Creator of All Things. God has enabled humanity to discover the orderliness of creation. Mathematical statistics strengthen our concepts of cosmic order and coherence.

The Book of Isaiah and other scripture passages have many references to the heavens and the wonders in the skies. Isaiah 40:26a is written in the context of the creative power of God, not only in the heavens, but also on the planetary surface. We are overcome with a sense of worship as we inspect passages extolling the orderliness of the creation and the characteristics of the Creator. 

 “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?…..”