I saw Jupiter this morning for the first time this year. It was sitting low in the pre-dawn southeastern sky, just above where the tea pot that is Sagittarius should have been if the sun were not already making most of the night sky disappear. It made me think back to 1996, when I had just moved to southern California to start work at Caltech, to 1984, when I had just moved to New Jersey – a state which I had never before even visited – to go to college, and to 1972 when I was a seven year old listening to the sounds of the Saturn V rocket being tested across town.
The first time I see Jupiter for the year always takes me back in these twelve year leaps because Jupiter takes twelve years to go around the sun and thus return to appearing in the same constellation – this time Sagittarius – once again. So in thinking back to 1996 I am thinking about where I was a Jupiter year ago. And, unlike earth years, Jupiter years are long enough that, for me at least, a Jupiter year always takes me back to a place in my life when everything was totally different from today. It’s also hard not to think a Jupiter year forward in time. The year 2020 seems a long way off, but it is really only a year away.
For the last few months, Jupiter has been up in the sky during the daytime and couldn’t be seen, but, as the earth has moved around the sun and the seasons have turned, the constellations that could be seen at night have slowly shifted until Jupiter made its first appearance in the morning twilight sky before the rising sun extinguished it. Something that appears in the early morning sky will, a few months later, appear in the midnight sky, a few months later in the evening sky, and a month after that be setting with the setting sun to appear again in the morning half a year later. When I first see Jupiter in the early morning I always think that “Jupiter season” is just starting. When I was younger I would be likely to get my first glimpse of Jupiter for the year in the early morning after staying up late working or playing. These days I am more likely to first see Jupiter for the year in the pre-dawn sky on my way to the airport to catch an early flight. Such are the seasons of a life.
While I was in graduate school in Berkeley the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation was Io, the volcanically active moon of Jupiter. During this part of my life, Jupiter season meant it was time to get to serious work. My dissertation involved spending many months at the telescope during Jupiter season watching Io and its volcanoes and its atmosphere and trying to disentangle what was causing what to do what and how. The first appearance of Jupiter in the early morning sky was always a visceral jolt that I needed to be ready for the season to come.
The winter and spring of 1991 – 1992 were to be the most intensive Jupiter season of all for me and were going to be the culmination of my study of Io and the main basis for my Ph.D. dissertation. The summer before the observations were to begin, however, Jupiter season was far from my mind. My uncle had just been casually killed for the few hundred dollars he carried into a bar one night, and soon thereafter my ailing grandfather slipped, fell, and died. I flew to Colorado to drive with my brother to the funeral in New Madrid, Missouri, on the shore of the Mississippi River. He picked me up at the airport and we drove all afternoon across Colorado and then continued through the night across Kansas talking about family and backpacking trips we had each made that summer. We made Missouri just before the sun was about to rise. Driving east trying to stay awake with my brother finally asleep in the front seat I looked up at the sky and just rising before the rising sun was a bright star sitting just below the feet of the lion in the constellation Leo. It hadn’t been there a year before. It was Jupiter. It was Jupiter season. Regardless of whatever else was to come, Jupiter was in the morning sky and its season was on the way.
Twelve years after my grandfather’s funeral Jupiter would have spun all the way around the sky and been back at Leo’s feet again: a Jupiter year. But my father didn’t make another Jupiter year. Eight years later we were all back in New Madrid, Missouri for my father’s funeral. I had driven from my sister’s house in North Carolina to Missouri this time, my brother and I in my father’s pickup, my sister and family in the minivan behind, and, driving through the day and even into the night we never saw any planets.
Friends of my father from around the county and around the country came to the funeral and we decided to have a story-telling and rum-and-coke (the drink of choice on the small trawling boat that my father lived on the last few years of his life) drinking session late into the night. We heard stories of sailing trips, late night driving to Florida interrupted by stopping to refurbish the brakes on the side of the Interstate, childhood stories of driving across fields plowing down fence posts, but the story that I remember best came from a friend who had worked with my father in the Apollo days in Huntsville, Alabama. He said that he and my father had talked recently and had spent much of the time reminiscing about that amazing but short period between 1969 and 1972 when they worked designing and constructing the computers that controlled the Saturn V rockets as they hurled men into space and onward to the moon. They had been thirty year old young men with wives and families at home and they had gone to work and figured out how to get the job done and they had sent a man to the moon.
It’s been 3 Jupiter years since the last man left the moon, and not quite 1 Jupiter year since my father’s funeral. In another Jupiter year I will be exactly the age that my father was when he was first diagnosed with the cancer that eventually killed him. I hope, though, that I am given the chance to see Jupiter round the sky a few more times before the end.