A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Lilah Brown's Planets

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.


  1. I have much older daughters so their interest for stars and planets is more focused on other type of "stars",...
    I send some info about localisation of two main sources of cosmic rays by Los Alamos Cosmic,....
    There are very potenial places for to be searched also by you in visible, infrared,...spectrum.

    I am supporter of Planet X idea. My calculations show, that Planet X-Nibiru is quite close, X is approaching perihelia-2012. So X must be now circa 1,6 billion km from us, what is little more than Saturn is. If X is somewhat like small neutron star or micro black hole or core of destroyed brown star,….so X can radiate cosmic rays,..accelerate particles from fumes, particles sucked from matter which is going arriving X trought. My calculations, but also many ancient writings, astronomical maps, …show, that X should come from direction Orion.(Senmut astro map,Dendera zodiac, Narmer palette, astro funneral banner from tomb of markisa Tai,... )
    When we look on motions of planets on sky, especially of Saturn, Uranus, what are circa in the same distance how X should be, so their relative motions on sky due to their orbital motion and due to orbital motion of Earth (+-150millions km) is circa one/two constellation within one year on Earth. Why are there two main areas where Gama rays come from? Earth is twice traveling on its orbit in direction what is approx. parallel with direction of arrival of X and twice perpendicular on that direction, so we have two places, when those cosmic, X rays appearantly are,…when Earth is moving circa parallel with motion of X so X is appearently moving slovly on sky-toward observer on sky. So there are those hot spots. When Earth is moving perpendicular to motion of X so, X looks moving quickly on sky. When those measurements were done within more years/7, during Autumn equinoxes was cosmic ray source visible to be near Castor and Polux/constellation Gemini,..during spring equinoxes at Aldebaran-Hyades,paralaxa of X.. ,…hamops1.szm.sk,…and other over there mentioned webs

    Those two areas, where are cosmic rays comming from is close to plane of ecliptic! I don't think that deflection by Milky way is responsible for two point projection of one object.Milky way galactic core is placed in other direction,... I think, that that one object is moving in our solar system and we see it\'s appearant motion on sky, similar how it is with appearant motion of planets (Uranus and Saturn are the most suitable example in this case, because similar distance from us). There are too many direct or indirect proof for existence of planet X. This discovery is one of them!?

    Eta Carinae is not behind, or deep in Milky Way but in close M42,…cosmic,...rays from Eta Carinae,..or from close very active objects, black holes,... can\'t be deflected by Milky way, because it\'s tentacles,…are far more away!!!
    Places of sky with cosmic ray sources very resemble with what is depicted on senmut map or on picture from mujweb.cz/kultura/planetx/nibiruecliptictexthereke.gif
    Pavel Smutny
    Skype: pavelsmutny40

  2. Michael Joseph John Pawelczyk McClellanDecember 1, 2008 at 8:41 AM

    I read about the nearness of the of Jupiter, Venus, and the Moon in my local paper. I'm totally going out and looking for them tonight. If this cloud cover clears up, that is...

    And your daughter sounds simply adorable.

  3. Monday night I looked to the southwest to see a diffuse glow barely penetrating the cloud cover.

    But in the last 18 months working as a field geologist in central Australia, I have had more than my share of perfect nights. My fieldie and I became fans of the planet Mercury, which is lively enough that it is fun to chase, and we found a cheap ruggedized 80mm reflector for watching the progression of Jupiter's moons. It's a bit odd to think that they range in size from a bit smaller than out moon to a bit larger than Mercury, when they are just shaky specks in the eyepiece spread out on either side of the yellow blob of Jupiter.

  4. For the last few nights, we've had cloudy skies where I live, but tonight it's crystal clear, and I got my first good look at the conjunction, when I was in our front room turning on the Christmas tree.

    I gathered up my 10-month-old son and took him out front to show him. He's way too young to understand, of course, but he's just old enough now to look at things that Dad points at, and the moon and planets were just bright enough, surrounded by enough dark sky to provide contrast, that he kept looking at it for a good 20 seconds before being distracted by the neighbor's (garish) holiday display.

    I know he won't remember it, and that the next time the equivalent display will happen, he'll be older than I am now. I also know he won't remember a lot of the things I've started explaining to him. But ya gotta start somewhere, and I know sometime between now and when he's 3 or 4, he'll be capable of starting to notice that the moon moves every day, and sometimes there's a bright star in the evening, sometimes in the morning, and so forth. At least, I hope he'll learn to be that observant about the world around him -- and I know how proud I'll feel when he first points these things out to me.

  5. :)



  6. She seems to be a very smart and curious girl. While reading your post, I understood perfectly the birth of astronomy... I don't know, maybe the hunter-gatherer nomads watching the sky all nights (no TV nor Internet back then) and finding those changes and wondering about them.

    If my memory is correct, she was born around the discovery of Sedna, right? I think I can grasp how proud you are of her astronomical precocity (and she surely is of your work as well).


  7. This rings very true on two levels. One, you do realize how prevalent planets are if you're an obsessed perpetually 29-year old adult. I know because I am one, and at every gathering of family and friends, all people hear about from me is planets this and planets that. "Again with those planets?" is a frequent response to my excitement. It's gone on for years this way, and I've never become bored. I guess I'm what they call an "adult child."

    Your daughter also reminds me of my nephew, who is five. I showed him Jupiter and Venus several times, and each time he was absolutely fascinated. He wants to discover a planet now. He also told his mother, my sister-in-law, that when his class gets to the lesson on planets, he can skip it because he already knows all about planets from Aunt Laurel! I'm trying to explain that I'm not the expert he thinks I am. He also knows that I give talks on planets and that I specifically mentioned him at the Great Planet Debate this past summer.

    I'm glad your daughter was given a lunchbox with Pluto as a planet, and that, being as intelligent as she is, she will come to question and ultimately dissent from your view that dwarf planets are not planets.

    Meanwhile, I'm already startiing to teach my two-year-old nephew. He's just learning to say "sun," "planet," and, of course, "Pluto." :)

  8. Hi, Laurel :)

    Kids never do do what you predict they'll do, do they? Soon after the (major) discoveries I couldn't find Mike's e-mail so I sent young Lilah a letter asking her to tell her daddy to please not name the new planet "Beelzebub". He didn't. For some strange reason when I googled Lagrange points I kept running into that name (??). Beelzebub was "the Lord of the Flies" to one Middle Eastern group in about 600 B.C. or so and they called it that to insult another Middle Eastern group. Lilah is very wise for her age :)

  9. A planet photo a young kid might like: the conjunction over New South Wales. Or, if you're 3 years old, the smiley face in the sky:


    I hope you and your family have a terrific Christmas.

  10. A planet photo a young kid might like: the conjunction over New South Wales. Or, if you're 3 years old, the smiley face in the sky...

    I am 3-years old from now on. :-)

    Very impressive pic, burning sunset with celestial smile. ^^

  11. Yes
    I showed my 7 year old daughter the smiley face.
    She was quite impresssed as was I.
    Regards Peter

  12. Hi Mike, is there anything you can tell us about the recent discovery of 2007 OR10?