Posts Tagged 'Mars'

The Planets and “The Planets,” Part Two

by Jeff Bowell, guest blogger

Last month we had a look, and hopefully a listen, both to the planets visible in the night sky and to those same planets featured in Gustav Holst’s The Planets. This month, we finish off the night sky and the musical movements (except for Pluto, which wasn’t a planet when Holst composed his piece, and isn’t a planet anymore).

JUPITER, which was visible the last two months, is almost completely swallowed up in the glare of the just-set sun now. The planet is just above the horizon and almost impossible to spot, although on February 16th it appeared to be next to the planet VENUS, a “conjunction,” and the two planets gave the optical illusion of appearing to pass one another while going in opposite directions. While they didn’t literally pass by one another, they are moving in opposite directions across the sky. Jupiter will vanish from our evening skies soon, only to reemerge as a pre-dawn planet later in the spring. Venus, on the other hand, appears to be slowly climbing higher into the sky each night after sunset. As February ends and March begins, Venus will be brighter and higher each night, but it’s still a hard planet to spot.

The movement of The Planets, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” is heard immediately after the brutal orchestral roars that conclude “Mars, the Bringer of War.” In complete contrast to the harsh and mechanical sounds of “Mars,” “Venus” is cool, calm, and, above all, peaceful. The subtitle for The Planets is “Suite for Large Orchestra,” and this largeness is demonstrated imaginatively in the opening of “Venus.” Holst wrote parts for extra flutes, more than were usually found in orchestras of the time. Their sound offers a coolness that comes as a relief after the fire, smoke and pain of “Mars.”

The planet MARS is well up in the northeast at sunset, high overhead by midnight, and setting in the west (if you happen to be up before dawn) by night’s end.  Look for it now, though, while Mars still is bright. Its brightness will quickly fade during March as the earth’s smaller, swifter orbit pulls away from the planet.

Next to be seen is the planet SATURN.  At this time of year, Saturn is passing “through,” or in front of, the constellation Virgo.  Virgo is a large constellation, but not as easily spotted as some others like Leo, the Lion (immediately to the right, or west, of Virgo), or Scorpio, the Scorpion (low to the left, or east, and with faint Libra between it and Virgo). Leo and Scorpio have distinctive shapes, especially Scorpio.  Virgo…well, it just sort of sprawls above the southern horizon, as seen from the Northern Hemisphere.  It is the largest of the Zodiacal constellations and Saturn, a slow mover, will be “in” Virgo for a long time.

Saturn’s most famous feature is its rings. For many years, scientists thought it was the only planet that had rings, but we now know that the three other “gas giants” of our Solar System: Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, also have rings. While Saturn’s rings ordinarily make for a spectacular sight, we’re out of luck for the next few years. During each of Saturn’s orbits around the sun (approximately 29.5 of our years), there are times when our view of its rings is edge-on, making them largely disappear from view. Sadly, the rings won’t be really visible for another few years.

These nights, Saturn looks like a golden-colored star in western Virgo, somewhat below the “tail” of Leo. It will rise in the southeast at about 7:30 PM by the end of February, and then will rise progressively earlier each night after that. The difference is hard to notice, but it adds up to a 2-hour change during a month, and by the end of March, Saturn will rise at 5:30 (6:30, Daylight Savings Time, by then).

In The Planets, Saturn is “The Bringer of Old Age.” This title makes sense, for one of the names the ancient peoples gave the planet Saturn was “Chronos,” or Time. Of the visible planets, Saturn is the most distant from the sun and seems to move the slowest of all, taking almost 30 years to make one revolution around the sun.

A quiet and slow musical tick-tock marks the passage of time as the movement “Saturn” opens. The music has almost a heartless and indifferent quality to it as it slowly and steadily counts off “…the Days of Our Lives”, as the announcer for the soap opera used to say. This tick-tock suddenly ends as a slow procession begins in the trombones. Then, the flutes that were so cool and peaceful flutes in “Venus” appear again.  It’s hard to imagine any sort of flute sound as being menacing, but that’s exactly what happens here as the flutes slowly and inexorably come closer…and closer. Chimes sounding like a clock striking the hour give something close to a feeling of despair, but the music ends peacefully, with a resignation that nevertheless isn’t devoid of hope.

Finally, the planet MERCURY. Mercury is closest to the sun of all the planets, and so can only been seen from earth for a short time before sunrise or after sunset. Right now, Mercury is too close to the rising sun to be easily spotted, but later in springtime it will be visible briefly above the sunset. We’ll talk more about Mercury in a later blog post.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” is the third (and shortest) movement of The Planets. Where “Mars” was relentless and “Venus” placid, “Mercury” is a masterpiece of musical restlessness. The element Mercury often is called “Quicksilver,” and the music matches this quality well: darting, swooping, dancing, and never staying in one place for long. In fact, at one point in the movement, Holst gives the instruction senza misura – “without a measure” – meaning that for a time there is no sense of rhythmic pulse or beat, but just notes scurrying about gaily. A short burst of a quiet chord, almost like seeing distant fireworks, ends the movement.

And that brings an end to this examination of both planets and The Planets. As mentioned before, the music is easily found online and elsewhere, and is one of several works that, for musicians and non-musicians alike, is unforgettable after first being heard. I hope you’ll enjoy both the planets and The Planets.

As always, good seeing (and listening)!


Our close encounter with Mars

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Just a reminder: this week the planet Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been any other time between 2008 and 2014.The planet and its famous ice cap will be visible both through telescopes and binoculars, and to the naked eye.

For a special treat, be sure to watch the skies tomorrow.  On Friday, January 29th, both Mars and the full Moon will be out. Mars will be in opposition to the sun, and the planet and the Moon will rise together.


The planets and “The Planets”

by Jeff Bowell, guest blogger

The beginning of 2010 offers anyone interested in astronomy the opportunity to view several members of our Solar System. At those times when, thanks to snow clouds, the night sky can’t be seen, why not experience the Solar System through the most famous musical depiction of the planets: The Planets, by the English composer with the decidedly non-English name of Gustav Holst.

Your first experience with this music will almost certainly be a memorable one (I’ll never forget the first time I heard it) and, of all of Holst’s works, this is the easiest to find. If your local library has anything by Holst in their “classical” CDs section, they’ll have this.  Also, there are many extracts or full-movement performances available on the internet.

The first-time listener to The Planets will find that much of the music, particularly the first and last movements, sound strangely familiar.  There’s a good reason for this. Many contemporary composers, particularly those who compose music for movies, have borrowed freely and lavishly from The Planets!

The movements as presented in the The Planets – Suite for Large Orchestra, are “Mars, the Bringer of War,” “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” “Mercury, the Messenger,” “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” (or Mirth, as it’s sometimes given), “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” “Uranus, the Magician,” and “Neptune, the Mystic.” The planet (or non-planet) Pluto hadn’t yet been discovered in 1914, when Holst began writing the piece. When Pluto was discovered in 1930, Holst chose not to write an eighth movement for The Planets.

The planets we can see this month won’t follow Holst’s performance order. We’ll start with what can be seen just at or after sunset, since things seen then are the earliest to set and vanish, and then work our way eastward, or to the left.

JUPITER is visible this month, and will be for part of February as well. To see Jupiter, first determine where to see the sunset from your location. Go outside maybe half an hour after the sun’s gone down, and face where the sunset was. If you look halfway up the sky and just s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y to the left, you’ll see what looks like a bright, solitary “star.” That “star” is the planet Jupiter, the largest of the planets in our Solar System and the quickest to disappear into the little bit of light still present from the set sun. If you observe Jupiter through a small telescope or binoculars held steadily (using a tripod, or resting your arms on a car roof helps), you might see several tiny star-like points of light lined up on either side of the planet, and if you look again in two or three nights, you’ll see that these lights will have shifted position. The lights are actually several of Jupiter’s moons, named the “Galilean” moons, since the astronomer Galileo was the first to see them and determine what they were.

Holst was inspired by the astrological traditions associated with the various planets as he composed the movements of The Planets. “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” brims with good feeling and merriment, an appropriate portrayal of Jupiter, who was depicted astrologically as rousing and roistering. The contrasting slow section in the middle of the movement has a hymn-like quality to it, and indeed later was used as a hymn in England (rather to Holst’s disapproval), with the words “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”

NEPTUNE is, sadly, never visible to the naked eye and you’ll need a fairly large telescope to see it, but it’s just 2 degrees to the lower right of Jupiter, shifting to the lower left as the month progresses. Even through very powerful telescopes Neptune can be hard to spot, so don’t be disappointed if you can’t see it. Instead, I’ll dare any first-time listener of The Planets to listen to “Neptune, the Mystic,” the movement written about the most mysterious and distant planet known in Holst’s time, in a darkened room. That’s all I’ll say about it, except to invite you to let me know, via the comments section of this post, what you thought if you’re brave enough to try!

URANUS, the farthest planet that can be seen without a telescope, can be found just one constellation to the east (or the left) of Jupiter. It’ll be passing in front of the constellation Pisces, the Fishes, by mid-January. You’ll need a star chart (available at the Museum’s front desk, or check online) to find the “Circlet” portion of faint Pisces, but Uranus will be just below that particular group of stars. If you’ve got 7X50 binoculars, you might be able to see the planet look like a blue-green disc, with the color coming from clouds filled with tiny methane crystals.

“Uranus, the Magician” is one of the funnier moments of The Planets, as the magician of Holst’s imagination is rather something of a bumbler. After a bombastic introduction, the music starts off in a galumphing way. The piece sounds similar to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, the music Disney used for Mickey Mouse and the magic brooms in the film Fantasia. Gustav Holst’s daughter Imogene stated that, to her knowledge, her father never had heard the Dukas work at the time he wrote The Planets, and that might indeed be true, but I’d wager that one piece might well remind you of the other.

MARS is easily seen low in the east after sunset. Distinctly reddish-orange, Mars will be passing in front of the constellation Cancer, the Crab, and will be closest to Earth in its orbit (and therefore, its brightest) on January 29th, the same night that a full moon will appear to be passing the planet. By midnight, Mars will be high in the southern sky, and will have dropped to the westward in the hours before sunrise.

The movement “Mars” opens The Planets, and is remarkable in how brutally repetitive and mechanical-sounding the rhythm that underlies the music is. Holst composed “Mars” just months before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the act that led to World War I – what the British called “The Great War.” The mechanical nature of the piece seems to anticipate the mechanized warfare that would soon begin. This is powerful, frightening music.

We’ll look at Venus, Saturn and Mercury in the next posting. In the meantime, I hope that, along with getting outside and seeing the planets of January for yourselves, you’ll have the opportunity to hear the music Gustav Holst is most remembered for, even though paradoxically, he didn’t at all consider it his best work.

As always, Good seeing (and good listening)!

Science at home: HiRISE images of Mars

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

Thanks to amazing new pictures from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera mounted on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, you can imagine that you’re pressing your nose to the window of a plane flying over the Red Planet: cruising Mars from the comfort of your chair.

The camera is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson, and is part of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) mission. The MRO was launched August 12, 2005, and is searching for evidence that water persisted on the surface of Mars for a long period of time. Scientific instruments aboard the MRO are zooming in for extreme close-up photography of the martian surface, analyzing minerals, looking for subsurface water, tracing how much dust and water are distributed in the atmosphere, and monitoring daily global weather.

The HiRISE camera is the largest ever flown on a planetary mission. This camera is capable of showing objects as small as three feet across — the size of your dining room table!

HiRISE image of Victoria Crater on Mars

HiRISE image of Victoria Crater on Mars (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Gullies at the edge of Hale Crater, Mars (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Gullies at the edge of Hale Crater, Mars (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

March 2023

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