Tonight I’d like to ask you to step outside. Wait until an hour or so after sunset, then find a location with a good, clear western exposure. Turn in that direction, toward the point where the sun disappeared behind the trees or neighboring houses.
Then, just look up.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that something brilliant and beautiful is there in the twilight sky; you’ll know it when you see it. The eye cannot help but be drawn to the white flare that is the planet Venus; it’s the showiest object in this evening’s spring sky. Often mistaken by observers as aircraft landing lights, or even unidentified flying objects, Venus is only out-shown by only two other objects; the sun and moon, and it’s easy to understand why the ancients associated this world with the Goddess of Love. Just as Mars and Mercury are referred to with the male pronoun, so Venus is always spoken of in the feminine, reflecting her beauty and mystery.
Tonight she isn’t alone in the heavens. Only a dozen degrees to her upper left lies giant Jupiter, a bright object in his own right but in this case vastly overshadowed by Venus’ brilliance. If Jupiter were not in such apparent close proximity to Venus it would the dominant “star” in this part of the sky, but in this case the largest planet in the solar system plays a lesser role in the drama to be performed in coming weeks…
You see, Venus and Jupiter are on a collision course. Not really, of course; Venus is an “inferior” planet (its orbit lies inside that of Earth’s path around the sun) and Jupiter a “superior” one (for the opposite reason), their paths are certainly not destined to meet. However, due the combined motions of these two worlds—and of Earth--this month dazzling Venus and giant Jupiter will appear to be hurtling toward each other in the evening sky, growing closer each night until at last in the final days of June they’ll pass within a fraction of a degree of each other in the sky, a blazing double “star” in the twilight.
This will be a Conjunction; “the apparent meeting or passing of two or more celestial bodies in the same degree of the zodiac” according to my dictionary, and if you have read my previous posting you’ll know that this is one of my very favorite celestial events; the opportunity to actually experience the motions of worlds as they slowly but perceptively draw together over days, finally rushing together and seeming to touch before moving on. This is the event I hope you’ll join me for, over the next three and a half weeks.
No special equipment is required to enjoy this astronomical event in its fullest. All you need are a few minutes each clear evening for the rest of this month (and perhaps the first week or so of July if you so desire) and a fairly open western horizon—plus the desire to experience the heavens as our ancestors did over the many millennia that passed before the electric light, television and internet joined forces to steal the beauty of the night sky from us.
So take an evening constitutional, or sit out in lawn chairs with a cool drink. Enjoy the view with friends and family. Who knows?--A few weeks of star-gazing might change your evening plans in the longer term as well. You might even find the sight of worlds in motion to be quite addictive.
I know I do.
P.S. Let me know what you see—and feel—as you enjoy this event. I welcome any comments and observing reports either via email or on my Blog: