Looking Up: Bright planets come together in the west
By all means, the next clear evening look to the west as twilight deepens for the planetary show. Jupiter and Venus are coming close together in a stunningly beautiful conjunction. Venus is the brightest of the two worlds. On Tuesday, June 30, they are closest, only a third degree apart.
That's less than the apparent width of the full moon. Jupiter will be shining on top of Venus.
You don't need to wait until June 30th. For an incredible eight days, these planets are within two degrees of each other. Some theorists have speculated that a similar, rare conjunction of Jupiter and Venus served as the Star of Bethlehem in 3 - 2 B.C.
Venus is nearly the size of the Earth. Jupiter, in contrast, is over 10 times as wide (87,000 miles) as either Earth (7,918) or Venus (7,580). Why then, is Venus so much brighter? Venus glows so brilliantly because it so relatively near the sun, as well as the Earth, and is covered in clouds which reflect the sunlight well. The average distance of Venus from the sun is 67 millions miles (Earth is 93 million); Jupiter's average distance is 483 million miles.
Venus is a solid, rocky world shrouded in dense atmosphere and is searingly hot. It takes 224.7 Earth days to orbit the sun. It has no natural satellites. A day on Venus takes over 116 of our days.
Jupiter is primarily a dense ball of gas and is bitterly cold. Jupiter has 67 known moons, and a faint ring system. It takes only nine hours, 56 minutes for this massive planet to spin around. This fast rotation causes the planet to noticeably bulge at its equator.
So close together in our sky, these planets are worlds apart.
If you have even a small telescope, take a look at these two planets while they are so close. Using low or medium magnification, you will easily be able to see them in the same field of view. Note the contrast! Venus will appear in the telescope as a dazzlingly bright, thick crescent. Jupiter, bright but more dull, sports four easily seen moons, looking like stars.
All you need to enjoy the spectacle, however, are your own eyes and a clear sky in the west.
If anyone gets a good photograph of Venus and Jupiter together, please send it to the email below. Please note your name, where you were at the time and your impressions. The pictures may be included with a future Looking Up column.
Meanwhile, on the evening of June 28, the gibbous moon passes close to planet Saturn. Look in the south-southeast about an hour after sunset. Saturn appears as a very bright star just under the moon. A small telescope will reveal Saturn's wonderful rings.
To the lower left of Saturn, look for the bright orange-red star, Antares.
Full moon is on June 30.
Keep looking up!
Peter W. Becker is managing editor of The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. He welcomes notes at firstname.lastname@example.org.