Conjunction Dysfunction

Monday, March 13, 2023


Jupiter, by Warren De la Rue, 1856. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

On the evening of March 1, Jupiter and Venus appeared closer than usual in the western sky, separated by less than one degree. Our solar system’s two brightest planets were passing each other, an astronomical phenomenon known as a conjunction. After receiving multiple emergency calls reporting the lights, a sheriff’s office in Stanislaus County, California, posted an image of the planetary conjunction on Facebook. “Do not be alarmed,” they advised residents, adding, “There is no reason to report this.” A lieutenant with the sheriff’s office told the Modesto Bee that they received fewer emergency reports after the Facebook post, which attracted hundreds of comments. 

Many were baffled that someone would call 911 for a celestial event, while others said they’d wondered about what they saw and appreciated the information. 

And then there were the jokes. 

“LED spy balloon??” one commenter said. Another said the planets were also a topic of discussion on the Nextdoor app. “I think a lot of our Modesto neighbors are the ones turning in the planets for suspicious activities.”

[Spy balloons were] a concern of at least one 911 caller, while others thought the planets were drones or spacecraft, said Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Erich Layton.


Halley’s Comet at Dawn, by Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliott, 1910. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In February, a few months before Halley’s comet was due to pass by Earth, the New York Times reported that the comet’s tail contained the gas cyanogen, which one French astronomer suggested could poison the atmosphere and “possibly snuff out all life on Earth.” The Times noted that most scientists did not share his opinion. On May 17, science-fiction writer Henry Shipton Drayton, best known at the time for publishing work on phrenology, hypnosis, and his anti-immigration politics, decried the panic provoked by the comet’s recent arrival in a letter to the editor of the Times. He recalled the planetary conjunction of 1881, during which Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune aligned in the northern sky, an event “anticipated by astrologists, fortune-telling fakers, and calamity howlers to frighten the credulous.” 

The year came and its train of weeks and months passed on in usual course, and nothing happened to disturb Earth’s rotation that warranted extraordinary notice. If I remember rightly Professor Larkin, at that time connected with the New Windsor observatory, discussed the relations of the planets at that time in a popular way, showing that even Venus and the moon were in conspiracy against Earth, because of their position in June 1881 between the sun and our habitat. But he showed clearly how the interrelation of axial movement and gravity rendered our world safe from extra-planetary aggressions, just as our astronomers today would dispel the fear of the ignorant and credulous by instructing the public with regard to the nature of comets and their movements.