There’s no doubt that I’m an idiot when it comes to astronomy. While I can point out the big dipper, find the north star, and show you where Orion is, I’d never be one to claim that I knew much more than that, with one small exception. Venus, the glorious evening star of summer. I’d know that beauty of the night sky anywhere. I’ve known it since my youth and I’ll be happy to point it out to you any time you please.
So it was that with significant authority one night during our camping trip that I set up my tripod just a few clicks from Kennedy Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness to photograph a moonrise over Kennedy Peak. “That,” I said to my brother as I set up my camera, “is Venus. Gorgeous isn’t it?” My brother, ever impressed with my brilliance, and always stunned at my intelligence, kept his mouth shut and enjoyed the otherwise quiet view, waiting for the moon to finally make its appearance.
Kennedy Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness. We camped west of the lake near the brown area in the upper left corner of the picture.
This same little scenario played itself out over and over again over the next several minutes. First Greg, then Colin, then Kathy, and several of the others in our party. Of course, I was dazzling. Perhaps even outshining the brightest planet in the night sky, until finally the moon began to rise and I was able to take my pictures, clean up my equipment, and head for bed.
The pictures turned out great and I was pleased enough with one of them that I made it my profile photo on Facebook. That Facebook photo prompted a query from Rocky Alvey, a friend of mine who also happens to run Vanderbilt University’s Dyer Observatory. Dyer’s a great place and if you ever find yourself in Nashville, TN, you’ll want to put it on your list of places to see, especially if they’re having one of their evening concerts. If you do go, chances are you’ll run into Rocky too.
Dyer Observatory. Photo, by Neil Brake, stolen off of the Dyer website.
Rocky’s a low key kind of guy and his query to me was, well, pretty low key itself. The kind of low key that sets you to questioning everything you’ve ever believed.
“Is that Jupiter to the right of the moon?” he asked.
“Hmmm…” I said. “No, I think it’s Venus,” and then to clarify my brilliance, “It was on the western horizon at the same time as the moonrise on the 16th or 17th of July.”
“Yup, it’s Jupiter.” He said. “The stars surrounding it are in Sagittarius. The bright one to the right is Nunki. For the moon and Jupiter to have been in those relative positions, it would have to have been on July 18th looking east, about 30 minutes after sunset.”
So here, for the record, are the objects I can pick out in the night sky: The big dipper, the north star, orion, maybe even the moon if I’m lucky. And, oh yes, Venus, which just might be Jupiter if you know what you’re talking about.
And one last thing… you may not want me giving you directions if the moonrise is in the western sky.