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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Astrophoto: Eight planets and a Moon, from east to west

By Phil Plait

Tunç Tezel is an astrophotographer, and one I’ve featured on the blog many times before. He has an eye for the unusual, something I appreciate very much. He recently sent me a note that he had tried something a bit odd once again, and as usual I was amazed at his effort.

Get this: Over two nights (January 25 and 26, 2017), he took a series of photos of the sky from the eastern horizon to the west, and was able to capture every single planet in the solar system, and the Moon, as well!

All the planets in one photo

How about that? It can be hard to identify everything in it, so he also produced an annotated version:

all the planets in one picture

Ah, that’s better! I’ll note that the bright object just above Mercury is the Moon, just a day or two before it was new. It was a very thin, waning crescent at the time. All the planets are labeled (Neptune is very faint, so he had to make a little “zoom circle” for it, way off to the right). For you diehards, even Pluto is there, between the Moon and Mercury (though he didn’t label it; at 14th magnitude, it was too faint to show up in the photo anyway).

Tunç did a great job stitching the individual photos together; it appears seamless. But have a care; the image is a bit funny because the photos were taken at different times of the night. It’s not like you could go out and actually see something like this.

For example, Venus setting in the west cannot happen at the same time you see Mercury rising in the east.  They both orbit the Sun closer than Earth, and so never appear very far away from it. So, if you see Venus setting in the west, it must be right after sunset, but if you see Mercury rising in the east, it must be right before sunrise! So, you know right away those two ends of the photo were taken many hours apart.

To my experienced eye, the photo looks funny for another reason. He took it at Nacpan Beach, in El Nido in Palawan, Philippines. That’s at a latitude of only 11° north of the equator, much farther south than the US! So, the tilts of some constellations are different, and appear in different part of the sky. For example, from where I live in Colorado, Orion’s belt never gets more than about 45° off the horizon, but from Tunç’s location it got much higher, more like 70°. That ay seem like no big deal, but it’s actually really weird when you see it. The sky looks pretty much the same, yet somehow wrong.

Of course, it’s not wrong, just different. It’s one of the reasons I like to travel south when I can, because it gives me a literally different perspective on the world and the sky above it. I like having my worldview shaken up every now and again. It’s good for the soul, and keeps my mind from getting too bogged down with preconceptions. I think we could all use a good mental cobweb-clearing every now and again.