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Here they come! After an interminable absence, a phalanx of planets has avalanched into the evening sky. Let’s enjoy the planet beauty contest parading before our eyes at the end of November. Take a look with Bob Berman as your guide.
The Planets Parade at Night
Jupiter: You’ve already surely noticed the brightest one, Jupiter, the most brilliant “star,” hands down. You can’t miss it high in the east after sunset through the nighttime.
Saturn: Look far to Jupiter’s lower right and the only medium bright star that’s there is Saturn. The ringed planet is not as bright as Jupiter; it shines a golden color and steadily from sunset until about 10:30 pm. The easiest time to spot Saturn in late November is when it cowers next to the crescent Moon on November 28 and 29, low in the south after sunset.
Mars: Finally, anytime after 8 PM you’ll see a superbright orange “star”—Mars. Mars arrives at its closest to Earth on December 1st. But since it doesn’t change much from night to night, it’s already ripe and juicy for inspection. So what do we do with all this? If we’re nerds, we’ll care that Mars has a thin atmosphere made entirely of that gaseous villain, carbon dioxide. But if we’re like most people including myself, our superficiality makes us happily focus on beauty rather than science. Who wouldn’t choose the Grand Canyon’s grandeur over taking the SATs?
Both Venus and Mercury are lost in the sun’s glare and morning light.
Just like gemstones and movie stars, some planets take our breath away while others are insomnia cures.
First Contestant: Venus
Take Venus. It was the only planet out the first half of this year, and even then was only up before dawn. More brilliant than any star or planet, it was aptly named for the goddess of love. Love deserves—and got—a dazzling celestial monument. But when the first telescopes were aimed its way in the 17th century, those wig-wearing, face-powdered upper-class guys who could afford telescopes had to be disappointed.
Venus did display moonlike phases, so that was kind of cool. But when “full” or nearly so, its cloud surface was as featureless as cream cheese. And though the goddess Venus supposedly epitomizes beauty, the planet version kept going downhill. 20th century researchers learned it has the hottest, most pressurized surface of any planet in the known universe, the physical incarnation of hell itself. And that hellishness was extenuated in 1959 when Frankie Avalon’s number one hit single Venus gave the world a melody so insipid it was later used in warfare until banned by the UN.
Then the Russians bizarrely decided that if NASA was going to Mars, they’d stake out Venus, and sent their Venera spacecraft to land on that world. The first survived for 23 minutes before heat and pressure turned it into something resembling their factory-new Kamaz sedan.
We were faster learners. When NASA talks about exploring the universe, their spokesmammals suddenly turn mute if a reporter mentions Venus. Like out-of-favor celebrities Russians airbrushed out of photographs, Venus is a non-destination for the US. Ironically, the nearest planet may as well be located in another galaxy.
But Venus is not out these nights. Instead our astronomical pin-up calendar is happily limited to the three most photogenic worlds. Of course, they all require a backyard telescope, otherwise we’re merely comparing points of light. But if you’re ready to drag that old ‘scope out of the garage or can buy one with food stamps, you may have a hard time deciding which is most beautiful.
Second Contestant: Saturn
Everyone gasps at Saturn. That may be because nowhere on Earth or anywhere else in the cosmos can we find a ball surrounded by unattached rings. (Those Webb or other photos showing Jupiter or Uranus with rings? Forget that. Those skimpy dust haloes require special enhancements. You wouldn’t see them in person.) Even Galileo sketched Saturn as a sugarbowl, a roundish object with two handles. So it’s unique in human experience. But unique is not the same thing as gorgeous. I’ve always drooled most over Saturn.
Out of the Running: Uranus and Neptune
In our shallow quest for handsomeness, akin to People Magazine’s annual “Sexiest Man Alive” feature, there’s no sense pretending looks don’t matter. Happily, the fainter distant planets Uranus and Neptune—though out at night right now—are automatically out of the running.
Neptune is a pale blue ball so featureless, astronomers got blood pressure spikes when they first observed a small, transient black spot in its cloud tops and promptly named it “The Great Black Spot.” That was despite countless other black spots being continually discovered but ignored in all other fields such as acne remediation and dry cleaning. Uranus, it turns out, is even worse. Its blue-green surface offers nothing whatsoever, as if Nature decided that one bland Venus was insufficient for such a large solar system. Uranus never offers any feature that could get a name.
Third Contestant: Mars
We’re down to Jupiter and Mars among the current bright planets. Mars, alas, being the Roman god of war, has always had a sinister vibe. It didn’t help when Howard Koch wrote “The War of the Worlds” radio script that Orson Wells recited, scaring millions. (Koch also wrote the movie Casablanca, which I mention to impress you, since he was a student of mine, and also collaborated with me on a book.)
Anyway, the point is that Mars is a bit scary and it’s also odd. First, because some envision someday colonizing it even though that will never happen for many reasons, not the least of which is that you can’t breathe there. But let’s not lose our important thread which is its appearance, and this is where Mars looks very cool now and for the entire next month, with a distinctive bright white northern polar cap.
Another Martian oddity is that it’s called the Red Planet. If you simply look all around the sky anytime after 8 during the next month, you’ll find it because it outshines everything but Jupiter, and is distinctively orange. What you observe is its true color. Does it look red? If you ordered orange juice and the waiter brought you a liquid whose color resembled a stop sign, would you drink it? Is orange the same thing as red? For how many more centuries will we continue that Red Planet thing? It’s probably because it’s the god of war. War reminds people of blood. And red seems to match gory conflict. Orange doesn’t, unless your shaving nicks make your friends beg you to see a hematologist.
Fourth Contestant: Jupiter
This is getting morbid, so let’s move onto Jupiter. With its dark horizontal bands visible through the cheapest telescopes, it’s the most colorful planet with its many shades of white, red, orange, brown, and yellow; it’s stormy atmosphere causes different chemicals to rise up through its atmosphere. Then there are Jupiter’s four giant moons that include Europa, with its warm salty oceans that beckon with the possibility of life.
Jupiter can’t be ignored. Except, whoops, we accidentally reverted to factual stuff instead of sticking with its appearance. So is it beautiful? It’s certainly Have we finally reached our November pin-up? The planet photo that WW2 bomber pilots would have taped over their altimeters to gaze at nostalgically? Well, as the very brightest “star” that’s currently out all night long, it’s just too easy to find, and too easy to observe even with yard-sale equipment.
So, you tell us! Which planet do you find most beautiful? (We can’t vote for ourselves: Earth!)