3 Nov 2004
NASA Science News
November 2, 2004: Two bright planets on opposite sides of the sky--that's nice.
Two bright planets together in the same constellation--even better.
Two bright planets less than one degree apart--that's spellbinding.
Prepare to be spellbound. On Thursday morning, November 4th, just before sunrise, you can see the two brightest planets side by side. Near the eastern horizon, shining brighter than the brightest stars, Venus and Jupiter will be less than one degree apart.
Hold your pinky finger at arm's length. The fingertip is about one degree wide. On Nov. 4th you could cover both Venus and Jupiter with the end of your pinky. When two planets appear so close together, they grab your brain's attention. Why? Because they tickle your fovea--a special part of the human eye.
"Your eye is like a digital camera," explains Dr. Stuart Hiroyasu, O.D., of Bishop, California. "There's a lens in front to focus the light, and a photoarray behind the lens to capture the image. The photoarray in your eye is called the retina. It's made of rods and cones, the organic equivalent of electronic pixels."
Near the center of the retina lies the fovea, a patch of tissue 1.5 millimeters wide where cones are extra-densely packed. "Whatever you see with the fovea, you see in high-definition," he says. The fovea is critical to reading, driving, watching television. The fovea has the brain's attention!
The field of view of the fovea is only about five degrees wide. If two objects are going to grab your attention at the same time, they need to fit inside that narrow angle. That's precisely what will happen on Thursday morning: Venus and Jupiter will be so close together that they can beam into the fovea, both at once.
The best time to look is between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m. local time ("local time" is the time where you live). Step outside and face east, toward the rising sun. You can't miss them: Venus and Jupiter are bright enough to see even after the sky begins to turn morning blue. Venus is the brighter of the two.
If you oversleep on Thursday, try again on Friday morning. The pair will be drifting apart, but still close enough to mesmerize.
So early in the morning, so sleepy, so cold! Once your attention gets fixed on Venus and Jupiter you might not notice. Your biggest problem will be forgetting to go back inside. Eventually the sun will rise and break the spell: time for work or school, after a better beginning than usual.