Since late summer, my three year old daughter Lilah has been mesmerized by Jupiter. Every night for a few months now it has been high in the evening sky, one of the first things to pop out of the murky twilight and reveal itself night after night after night. Back in the summer we would have to go outside right at her bedtime, when it was just barely dark enough to make out Jupiter, so she could say good night. These days it is plenty dark as we drive home every day, and , for her, the highlight of the drive is the moment after we’ve climbed the little hill to our neighborhood and we take the final left hand turn to point west, and Jupiter suddenly appears in her window, high enough in the sky to even be seen from the moderate depths of her child car seat.
Anyone who, like Lilah, has been following Jupiter has noticed that it is no longer the king of the evening skies. A while back Venus crept up into the twilight to start to steal the show from Jupiter. Or, at least, in Lilah’s view, to share the show. She went from having only one planet to now having two planets to say goodnight to every night.
Lilah sees planets everywhere. You never quite realize – until you have an obsessed 3 year old – how prevalent images of planets are in everyday life. She’s got them on her lunchbox (a gift from friends who thought it would be funny if Lilah carried a lunchbox where Pluto is a planet); she sees pictures in magazines and catalogs; she sees mobiles and puzzles at stores. I would tend to just walk by them without noticing, but she always runs up – “Daddy daddy daddy daddy LOOK!” She always quickly picks out Jupiter (the big one) and, of course, Saturn. She recognizes the globe-like look of Earth. And she gets Venus right more often than I think she should.
A few nights ago, after a long cloudy spell when we couldn’t see the planets at night, Lilah looked up at the sky and was a bit startled. “Daddy daddy daddy daddy daddy daddy daddy LOOK! Jupiter MOVED!’ And she was right. While Venus and Jupiter had been slowly edging closer to each other over the past few weeks, you wouldn’t notice it unless you were watching closely. But now they were suddenly so close that even a three year old could look and see that something had changed.
As much as I am charmed by Lilah picking out pictures of planets in magazines to show me, having her point out to me that Jupiter moved was – for me – the pinnacle of planetary charm. While most kids and adults can name the planets and point out pictures, almost nobody notices the real thing even when it is blazing in the evening sky. Planets are not just things that spacecraft visit and beam back pictures from. They’re not just abstractions to put on lunch boxes. They are really there night after night after night, doing what only planets do: moving.
Last night – Saturday – the show got even better. The sliver moon showed up low in the early evening sky anda began working its way toward Jupiter and Venus. For half of the month, Lilah and I watch the moon get bigger and move east night after night in the evening sky, so we both know what is going to happen next. Based on how far the moon is from Venus and Jupiter, it looks like on Monday night the moon will be packed tightly in the evening sky with Jupiter and Venus. It will, I suspect, be a spectacular sight, with the three brightest objects ever visible in the night sky in an unmistakable grouping in the southwest just after sunset. It’s the sort of site that I think – that I hope – will make even non-night sky watchers suddenly look up and wonder. And when they look the next night, to see if it is still there, they will notice the moon has already moved further east and gotten a little bigger, and they will see that two other bright lights – Jupiter and Venus – are in slightly different spots. Maybe even a person or two will follow the moon’s movement for the next week as it grows to full. Maybe a lucky few will watch as Jupiter gets lower night after night, leaving Venus alone in the sky by next month. It’s a show worth following. I know Lilah and I will.
I’m on a flight across the country tonight. I touch down long after Jupiter and Venus and the Moon will all have set in Florida. As I was packing my bags this morning Lilah asked: “Daddy, are you going away to go talk about planets?” Yes, Lilah. I’m going away to talk about planets. I forgot to tell her, though, that I’m going to see some, too. I was sure to pick a window seat on the south side of the airplane so I could watch the show from the air. And when I arrive I’ll call back home and tell Lilah all about it and tell her to go outside right now and LOOK! she can see all of our favorite planets and LOOK! the moon has moved and grown and I’m sorry that planets are taking me far from home tonight but I’m glad we have these here in the sky to share tonight and forever.