Seeing Stars

Dr. Bob Hayward with a radio telescope at PARI.

Dr. Bob Hayward with a radio telescope at PARI.

Dr. Robert “Bob” Hayward is a semi-retired astronomer who spent three decades teaching students, teachers, and others about out-of-this-world wonders at the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta. Holding two master’s degrees in astronomy and a PhD in Science Education, he works part time today at PARI, the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in Rosman, near Brevard.

BL: There’s an unusual planetary alignment that stargazers anticipate for January. Can you tell us about it?

BH: Yes. Actually Venus and Mercury — nicknamed “the elusive planet,” as it’s seldom seen — will be very close together on January 10. Over a period of several days, they do sort of a do-si-do in the sky, but never pass each other. Both planets are much closer to the sun than we are, and usually impossible to see during the day.

Venus, which is the brightest planet and brighter than any star other than the sun, will, in essence, enable us to locate Mercury right next to it. During January 8-12, Venus and Mercury will be close to conjunction, and then Mars will be in the southwest just after sunset. An hour later, Jupiter will come up in the east. Saturn will then come up in the east in the wee hours of the morning. It’s amazing, because Jupiter and Saturn are nowhere near each other right now.

These changes happen slowly — to give you an idea of how slowly, it takes Saturn 29 years to go around the sun, and Jupiter circles the sun comparatively quickly — every 12 years.

You’re describing a fascinating planetary dance. It seems there are always things happening simultaneously in the sky.

Absolutely, and they’re predictable and unpredictable. That’s what makes astronomy so exciting. Mars is low in the western sky now; it will be gone soon, and not visible again until next summer, while Saturn is now in the morning sky. The shifts and transitions are constant.

Do you think that astronomical events, like full moons and planetary alignments, influence people’s behavior?

I find it hard to believe. We can foresee astronomical events by looking at computer programs … I just don’t take this theory seriously.

Unlike, say, biology, where you might deduce a lot from dissecting an animal, astronomy seems to pose challenges to the traditional scientific method.

Astronomy’s the only science where we have these tremendous objects and forces working in the sky, and we have to use remote tools here to determine what’s going on … [for example], analyzing what’s happening inside a supernova when it explodes.

I’m fascinated by everything about astronomy — what other discipline sees us landing spacecraft on a comet?

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