If it’s clear in the west tonight, your eyes will twinkle with extra added sparkle. The crescent moon slides just a few degrees to the right of Venus, while Jupiter shines above and Mercury below. You’ll want to be out about a half hour after sunset to see Mercury glowing ember-like in the pale orange of dusk just eight degrees above the western horizon. The other three luminaries are much higher in the sky and visible up to 3 hours after sunset.
I’ve drawn in the ecliptic, the line that defines the path of the planets, just so you can see how flat our solar system is. If it wasn’t, the planets might be all over the sky and never line up as they will be tonight. In order of brightness, Venus at magnitude -4.2 ranks first by a significant margin, Jupiter does its level best at -2.2 and tiny but feisty Mercury manages a very respectable -1.1, rivaling the star Sirius (-1.4).
Have you ever seen a star or planet in the daytime? You’ll have a shot at it this evening thanks to the moon. If the sky is clear and free of haze, you’re ready to go.
Face toward the sun around 4:30-5 p.m. and look high up to the left to find the crescent moon. Now look a little (about 3 degrees to be exact) to the lower left of the moon for a tiny star-like spot of light against the blue. That’s Venus! Feel free to cheat a little by using binoculars first. Make sure you focus them sharply on the moon, then place the crescent in the upper right of the field of view. You should easily spot Venus to the lower left. Lower the binoculars from your eyes and stare at that spot without optical aid. If you can see what looks like a tiny white spark against the blue sky, you’ve nailed it.
The map above shows the moon and Venus for the U.S. Midwest around 5 p.m. For sky watchers in the western states, the moon will be more directly above the planet and the two slightly farther apart. For European viewers, the the moon will lie almost directly to the right of the planet. The moon’s position with respect to Venus changes depending on your time zone, because it’s moving upward and to the east as it orbits the Earth.
If you have a telescope that magnifies around 50x and up, Mercury will look like a very tiny gibbous moon, Venus a little more than half-full and all four of Jupiter’s brightest satellites will be beautifully displayed on either side of the planet. And don’t forget the moon. Lots of craters and other interesting features will greet your eye. As always, I hope it’s clear over your neighborhood tonight.