Tag Archives: Science

The Universe's Curve Ball: Real Retrograde Planets

Illustration of terrestrial, extrasolar planets. Credit: R. Hurt/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Just when you thought you knew what to expect from the firmament, it comes up with something crazy to defy all rational belief!

Starting with the Big Bang itself, and working our way through the basic creation of life to something called Hypervelocity stars (what you mean when you say “wish upon a shooting star,” and rarer than flawless diamonds, since what you think is a shooting star is actually a meteor), the universe has the most amazing tricks up its sleeve. Take, for example, our potential salvation, the ability to get off this rock called Urth and create Arbees and SuperCenters on a planet 20 lightyears away.

Sound crazy? Not any more! Not ever since Gliese 581g was recently discovered, located in the sweet spot (referred to as the Goldilocks zone) close enough to its sun for warmth, and far enough away so as not to become bacon sizzling in a pan, Gliese 581 is in the constellation of Libra, a plus for the marriage-minded.

It’s reassuring to note that if that planet doesn’t work out, there’s likely to be many more that will pop up in the lens of NASA’s Kepler satellite. I cannot tell you how relieved I am. I have long been concerned we were going to be stuck here, but it now seems there’s hope. Of course, we won’t be leaving anytime soon, so you can just unpack your suitcases.

In the meantime, while we create a crate to get us off this spinning rock, we have the wonderment of retrograde planets to think about. Did you know that there are a few planets that are actually capable of going retrograde? And here I thought it was one of those myths astrologers tell each other over a crackling fire at Celestial Camp! But no! The universe has provided us with actual retrograde planets:

Astronomers believed that binary star systems were too volatile to support many planets, because the overlapping gravitational forces of the two stars would pull most planets apart. But one exoplanet 69 light-years away survives just fine… by orbiting the wrong way… Retrograde orbits are rare, and we’ve never seen anything quite like this before in our exploration of extrasolar planets. Still, they’re not unknown, at least in this solar system’s moons – most famously, Neptune’s major moon Triton is in a retrograde orbit, a likely artifact of its previous existence as a massive asteroid in the Kuiper Belt.

Retrograde motion, no longer real only in crazy astrologers’ minds!

I like simply knowing retrograde planets exist at all. It makes me happy, because being in the House of Astrology requires an awful lot of acceptance of hearing that planets can’t actually go retrograde (or at least, this is what I’ve been told and taught to believe).

It’s good to know that it’s at least possible. When something you thought was impossible suddenly becomes possible, I don’t know about you, but it lets some fresh air into an otherwise very stuffy room in my mind. Perhaps one can consider it transiting Uranus in Pisces’ last gasp of Zephyrus-wind into the trine with my natal sun/solar sails, but I like to learn something new every day, when it’s possible.

Last but not least, the planets themselves are a quizzical conundrum to scientists, who scratch their heads and stay up late at night, wondering things I also wonder, but from a slightly different perspective. Scientists think planets, to a large extent, are actually pretty weird:

It might sound strange because we live on one, but planets are some of the more mysterious members of the universe. So far, no theory can fully explain how disks of gas and dust around stars form planets—particularly rocky ones. Not making matters easier is the fact that most of a planet is concealed beneath its surface. Advanced gadgetry can offer clues of what lies beneath, but we have heavily explored only a few planets in the solar system. Only in 1999 was the first planet outside of our celestial neighborhood detected, and in November 2008 the first bona fide exoplanet images taken.

When you think about it, we actually know very little about the universe. Given how little we truly know, I think leaving our minds open to possibility makes a lot of sense, and, in my opinion, that leaves room for discovery on a broad array of topics, including the infamous question of whether (or why) astrology ‘works.’