I hope you’re having a great start to Earth Day. We’re all sunshine and 56° here in Duluth, Minn. The view through the window makes me want to get up and abandon writing this very second. Before I do, let me tell you about Venus and the Pleiades. They’re moving in each other’s direction like friends sitting down at a table.
Tonight you’ll find them in the northwestern sky at dusk about 4° apart or the width of two fingers held together at arm’s length. On Tuesday the 24th, they’ll be tightest at 3.2°. Two separate motions are bringing them together: Venus is slowly moving up and away from the sun, and the star cluster is sinking toward the western horizon. Zipping along at 18½ miles a second around the sun, Earth’s constantly on the move.
As our celebrated planet rolls along, it “leaves behind” stars in the western sky and “approaches” stars in the east. The cumulative effect of the planet’s orbital motion causes stars in the eastern sky to rise up and those in the west to drop away. It’s called seasonal drift, and occurs on top of the speedier rising and setting of the stars caused by Earth’s rotation.
The combined motions cause Venus and the Pleiades to approach one another. What do you get when pair up two beautiful cosmic objects? A sight worth a few minutes of your time. I was out last night watching the pair sink into the fading twilight. Venus grabs your gaze right away, but the dipper-shaped Pleiades star cluster (a.k.a. the Seven Sisters) is fainter. It first becomes visible with the naked eye about an hour after sunset but gets easier to see the darker the sky gets.
While nice enough without optical aid, this is a fantastic sight in binoculars. Venus is overwhelmingly bright compared to the delicate stellar shower the cluster offers. I think you’ll really enjoy the view. And if you don’t get to see them tonight, the two remain near one another all this coming week. Check it out!
Have any luck with the Lyrids overnight? The atmosphere here was very calm, so I cheated and observed Mars, Saturn and a couple comets through the scope. But those times when I just kicked back and looked up were rewarding, too. I spotted five Lyrids, four of them almost-fireballs as bright or brighter than Jupiter. They were super swift and looked more like flashbulbs popping off. No long trails just bright pops! As far as photos, I took 93 time exposures and captured … zero Lyrids. But I did snag two nice sporadic meteors.
Even if my Lyrid count was low, seeing the summer Milky Way again was worth the price of getting up. What was your experience?