Venus is plummeting. In two weeks you can kiss it goodbye from the evening sky. Happily, it won’t slink out of view as it has on some occasions. No, no. The brightest of planets will leave with a flourish in a farewell conjunction with the planet Mercury on Thursday, May 21. You can watch Venus sink lower in the northwestern sky with nothing more than your eyes, though I encourage you to bring binoculars so you can magnify it into a miniature crescent “moon”. On Sunday, May 17 it’s about a fist and a half high (14°) 40 minutes after sunset but only half that a week later. Meanwhile, Mercury’s altitude climbs from 6° tonight to around 10° on the 21st.
Venus is by far the brighter with a magnitude around –4.3, but Mercury’s bright for Mercury with a magnitude of –1, brighter than any star currently visible in the night sky from mid-northern latitudes. Keep in mind however that because it’s located squarely in the twilight glow the planet won’t look as bright as it otherwise would in a dark sky. The crescent moon joins the duo to make a trio on May 24. What a great way for the two to go out with a bang!
Two planets? Yes. After Venus departs Mercury will follow in early June. Quick-moving Mercury reaches its greatest apparent distance from the sun on June 4 just a day after Venus is in conjunction with the same, then drops out of view about a week later. No one likes losing planets but in a delightful balancing act, the two small, inner planets will soon be replaced Jupiter and Saturn, the two biggest outer planets.
That duo currently rises around 1:30 in the morning in the southeastern sky. By the time Mercury and Venus depart they’ll be visible around 12:30 a.m. That’s still late but if you’re patient they’ll rise earlier and earlier and before you know it become part of the summer night-sky furniture. The rising of Jupiter and Saturn also signals the appearance of the summertime Milky Way. You can get a taste now (photo above). We’ll dig deeper into the topic in a future blog.