It’s double duo week: Moon-Jupiter and Venus-Uranus

The nearly full moon is in conjunction with Jupiter tonight. Their minimum separation of 5 happens around 10 p.m. (CST). Source: Stellarium

The nearly full moon is in conjunction with Jupiter tonight. Their minimum separation of 5° happens around 10 p.m. (CST). Source: Stellarium

I looked until around 11 p.m. last night but moonlight diluted any aurora that may have out. But the predicted storm did hit between about 2 a.m. and dawn this morning. While some readers might think I stay up all night, I really did sleep through this aurora. I know at least a few of you saw it. Tonight, there’s a chance for more minor storming.

There’s also an even better chance you’ll be struck by two very bright objects in the eastern sky at nightfall: a plump gibbous moon and the jolly giant planet Jupiter. They’ll be in conjunction tonight just ahead of Leo’s brightest star Regulus. Pairings like these make for great company and contemplation while walking the dog at night.

Venus and Uranus will be very close together on March 4th, an ideal time to find the fainter planet in binoculars. Source: Stellarium

Venus and Uranus will be very close together on March 4th, an ideal time to find the fainter planet in binoculars. Source: Stellarium

A planet-to-planet pairing occurs on Wednesday evening the 4th when Venus and Uranus will be just 1/3° apart. Like last month’s close graze with the crescent moon, this will provide yet another easy opportunity to see a planet that is too dim for most to see with the naked eye. Just point your binoculars at brilliant Venus in late twilight in the western sky and look for a tiny speck of light immediately below it.

I love how planets can appear so close and yet be so far from one another. Venus is a quick jaunt at 128 million miles from Earth compared to Uranus’ 1.9 billion miles, nearly 15 times farther away.

The stars in the constellation of Orion all look like they are at the same distance. Turn the constellation through 90 degrees and you can see the stars are actually at different distances. Two of the Belt stars plus the two bottom stars in the constellation are far from the sun but relatively near one another in space. Betelgeuse is much closer to us. Credit: ESA

The stars of Orion might be easily dismissed as all being at the same distance from us. That’s how they appear on the 2-D “surface” of the sky. Butturn the constellation through 90 degrees (look at it from the side) and you can see the true distances of each star. Notice that Betelgeuse is much closer to us than the Belt stars. Credit: ESA

When we see conjunctions and appreciate the real distances between objects in the sky, it’s helpful to remember the same applies to the constellations. We see familiar rectangular outline of Orion and the neat arrangement of his three belt stars by lucky chance. Looking back toward Orion’s stars from a different direction in space (a couple hundred light years beyond the solar system) Orion would be unrecognizable.

Planetary traffic jam lookback / Speedy comet update

To capture the planet Uranus (at lower right) I had to overexpose the bright, sunlight lunar crescent. Naturally, this made the earth-lit portion stand out very clearly. Credit: Bob King

To capture the planet Uranus (at lower right) I had to overexpose the bright, sunlight lunar crescent. Naturally, this made the earth-lit portion stand out very clearly. Credit: Bob King

Wow, we had quite a weekend. The moon visited every evening sky planet while Venus and Mars squeezed together for their closest approach of the year. We’ve already looked at the “triple play” conjunction that occurred Friday. I thought it would be fun to look at the other alignments that have made the past few nights so memorable.

The moon (top) along with Venus and Mars Saturday evening Feb. 21, 2015. Credit: Guy Sander

The moon (top) along with Venus and Mars Saturday evening Feb. 21, 2015 from near Duluth, Minn. Credit: Guy Sander

Here, Guy has enlarged portions of the image to better see all three planets involved. Credit: Guy Sander

Here, Guy has enlarged portions of the image to better see all three planets involved. Credit: Guy Sander

Venus and Mars were still close Sunday night Feb. 22, but they will part in the coming days as Venus moves up and Mars slides closer to the Sun. Credit: Bob King

Venus and Mars were still close Sunday night Feb. 22, but they will part in the coming days as Venus moves up and away from the Sun while Mars slides closer. Credit: Bob King

As for that fast-moving comet discovered last week and en route to the evening sky, Karl Battams, an astrophysicist and computational scientist based at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington DC, is right now at his computer measuring positions of the comet from photos made with the orbiting Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).

Comet SOHO-2875 survived its close passage of the Sun and may make an appearance in the evening sky soon. This photo montage was made using the coronagraph (Sun-blocking device) on SOHO. Click to watch a movie of the comet. Credit: NASA/ESA

Comet SOHO-2875 survived its close passage of the Sun and may make an appearance in the evening sky soon. This photo montage was made using the coronagraph (Sun-blocking device) on SOHO. Click to watch a movie of the comet. Credit: NASA/ESA

Once enough positions are known, he’ll send the data off to the Minor Planet Center where a preliminary orbit will be determined. With that information I can make a nice map showing us where to look for it. Stay tuned.

Spectacular fireball over Pittsburgh / Juvenile moon alert

Pittsburgh fireball February 17

A fireball meteor at least as bright as the full moon flared over the Pittsburgh region around 4:50 a.m. Eastern time Tuesday morning. The object, detected by three NASA meteor cameras, was moving at a speed of 45,000 miles per hour. Based on its brightness, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office estimated the object at 2 feet across with a weight of 500 pounds. Something like a very heavy TV falling out of the sky.

“I’ve seen many meteor showers and this wasn’t anything like that. Instead of crossing the upper atmosphere, this feel almost directly down and brighter than any thing I’ve ever seen of this nature,” reported John D. of Elyria, Ohio. “It looked so big that my son and I expected to hear or see an impact.”

Based on data from pictures taken by multiple cameras, an orbit for the Pittsburgh fireball could be made. Originating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, it came a long way to get to PA.Copyright David L. Clark, prepared by NASA MEO

Based on pictures taken by multiple cameras, NASA scientists determined an orbit for the Pittsburgh fireball. Originating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, it came a long way to get to PA. Copyright David L. Clark, prepared by NASA MEO

“The entire landscape was lit up like daytime. Startling experience. I was very fortunate to be looking out window at the time.” So wrote Robert M. of Clarion, Penn. in his report to the American Meteor Society’s fireball reporting website.

Map showing reported sightings of the fireball. To date, 125 reports have been received. Credit: AMS

Map showing reported sightings of the fireball. To date, 125 reports have been received. Credit: AMS

NASA’s cameras first spotted the meteor at an altitude of 60 miles northwest of Pittsburgh and last saw it 13 miles above Kittanning, northeast of Pittsburgh. Around 13 miles altitude, the meteoroid entered its “dark flight” phase, when the air slowed it down enough to drop in free fall.

When we see a meteor, we don’t actually see the object itself but rather a brilliant “tube” of ionized air caused by the rock’s incredibly speedy passage through the atmosphere. Once a meteoroid loses sufficient speed, it no longer has the energy to ionize or make the air glow around it and falls in dark flight.

Earth seen from the perspective of the meteoroid moments before it entered our atmosphere to become a fireball. Click to see the movie. Credit:

Earth seen from the perspective of the meteoroid moments before it entered our atmosphere to become a fireball. Click to see the movie. Credit: Copyright David L. Clark, prepared by NASA MEO

Some people heard sonic booms during the fall, a good sign that the meteoroid (what you call a meteorite before it hits the ground) fragmented and dropped pieces on the ground east of Kittanning. According to Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Office, seismographs in the region recorded the pressure wave created by the meteoroid’s flight.

Like most meteors and meteorites, this one’s a visitor from the main asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. If pieces did survive the atmosphere’s ferocity, may I be the first to welcome them to their new home.

Watch for a 1-day-old super-thin crescent moon below the duo of Venus and Mars tonight. This map shows the sky about 35 minutes after sundown. Source: Stellarium

Watch for a 1-day-old super-thin crescent moon below the duo of Venus and Mars tonight. This map shows the sky about 35 minutes after sundown. Source: Stellarium

On another note, I wanted to remind moon lovers that a very young, very thin 1-day-old moon will be visible during early twilight in the western sky this evening starting about 25 minutes after sundown.

The moon’s about about one fist held at arm’s length below the pair of Mars and Venus. Tonight’s act is a warm-up for tomorrow night’s very close gathering of the moon with the two planets. For more information on that event, click HERE.

Tracking down February’s mystery supermoon – where is it?

This week’s new moon will be unusually close to Earth. Think of it as a ghostly supermoon. As is true for any new moon, it will be too close to the Sun in the daytime sky to see. This illustration shows the moon’s appearance and location if our eyes could somehow make it out through all the daylight. Source: Stellarium

Here comes the supermoon! But wait, doesn’t that only happen around full moon? Well, not always. Every month the moon swings around Earth in its elliptical (oval) orbit. On one side of the ellipse, it’s closest to Earth and on the opposite side, farthest. When it’s at its closest point, called perigee, at the time of full moon, we call it a supermoon.

During the closest supermoons, our satellite can appear up to 30% brighter and 14% larger. Whether anyone can actually see the difference is open to debate simply because there’s no normal-distance moon nearby with which to make a comparison.

No one pays attention to first quarter or crescent supermoons even though the moon can be closest to us at those phases, too. Thanks to incessant media coverage, only full supermoons get coverage. We like full moons for all sorts of reasons. When an extra close one’s in the offing, as happens on Sept. 27 this year, that’s just one more reason to like them.

The moon’s orbit around Earth is an ellipse with the Earth off-center at one the ellipse’s foci. During its 27-day-long orbit, the moon passes through perigee (closest) and apogee (farthest) points. This week’s new moon will be the second closest perigee of the year after the Sept. 27 full moon. Illustration not to scale. Credit: Bob King

Lest crescents and quarters get short shrift I’m here to hawk this month’s supermoon. Full disclosure. Since it occurs during new moon phase on Feb. 18 you won’t see it. No one sees a new moon except when it happens to be eclipsing the Sun. But northern hemisphere skywatchers can spot the moon two days before new and just one day after new this month, and it’ll be nearly as super as on the18th.

Tomorrow morning Feb. 16 the planet Mercury will lie about 9.5° (about one fist held at arm’s length) to the lower left of the thin crescent two days before new moon phase. This map shows the sky facing southeast about 40 minutes before sunrise. Source: Stellarium

What’s more, if you have a good view of the southeast horizon, tomorrow morning’s skinny crescent will lie near the planet Mercury low in the southeastern sky 40 minutes before sunrise. Be sure to carry along a pair of binoculars as Mercury is near “last quarter” phase and not nearly as bright as it can be.

The moon’s average distance is 240,000 miles, but tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. (CST) it will lie just 226,549 miles from Earth. At 1 a.m. Feb. 18 – the time of the invisible supermoon –  it will be 4,723 miles closer. The following day the moon slides out a bit to 222,092 miles en route to a striking double conjunction with Mars and Venus on Friday the 20th.

Even though we won’t see February’s supermoon, our planet will sense the difference. The additional gravitational force exerted by the close moon will make for unusually high tides. High tides occur when the Sun, moon and Earth are all in a line as they during both new moon phase and at full moon.

The moon, still very close to perigee, pops up in the western sky at dusk on Thurs. Feb. 19 well below Venus and Mars, now in close embrace. This map shows the sky about 35-45 minutes after sunset facing west. Source: Stellarium

So tomorrow morning you can catch the moon near Mercury at dawn, and on Thursday the 19th you’ll have the chance to enjoy the delicate grin of a one-day-old crescent in the west at dusk. Finally, on Friday, don’t miss the close conjunction of the moon with Mars and Venus.

Our satellite has a busy schedule this week!


A triple-scoop conjunction with a cherry on top!

Venus and Mars (at right) are drawing closer every night. This photo was taken at dusk Thursday Feb. 12 an hour and 15 minutes after sunset. On Feb. 20-21 they’ll be just half a degree apart or 8 times closer. The moon joins the pair on the 20th. Details: 35mm lens, f/3.5, ISO 800, 12 second exposure. Credit: Bob King

Get ready. One week from tonight fate has arranged a celestial spectacle. That night (Feb. 20) a two-day-old crescent moon will “triple up” with the planets Venus and Mars after sundown.

The entire bunch will fit within a circle 1.5° wide or just three times the diameter of the full moon. Like a glittering pendant around your sweetheart’s neck the trio will dangle above the western horizon in the afterglow of sunset. This is a not-to-miss event and one that should be fairly easy to photograph.

Moon, Mars and Venus around 6:45 p.m. (CST) on Feb. 20 in the western sky. Be sure to look for the darkly-lit part of the moon illuminated by sunlight reflecting off Earth called earthshine. It’s a beautiful sight in binoculars. Source: Stellarium

Look toward the west in the direction of the setting Sun; the best viewing time will be 45 to 90 minutes after sunset. With plenty of light to work with, taking a picture of the scene shouldn’t be too difficult. Attach your camera to a tripod and use the information in the photo caption as a place to start. Try to keep your exposure times to 20 seconds or less. Any longer and the planets will stretch into short trails instead of compact dots due to Earth’s rotation.

When you look at the LCD screen on the back of your camera, don’t be surprised if the crescent moon is completely filled out. Time exposures in semi-darkness necessarily overexpose the bright sunlit crescent. The rest of the moon is illuminated by dimmer earthshine, sunlight reflected from the Earth to the moon and back.

From the East Coast, the moon will lie a little farther to the right of Venus and Mars than depicted in the map; from the West Coast, it sits above the pair. Conjunction with Venus occurs around 5 p.m. (CST) and with Mars an hour later.

Venus and Mars will be close conjunction the following night (Feb. 21) only 0.5° or one moon diameter apart. If the weather doesn’t cooperate on the 21st, don’t sweat it – the two planets will be close from the 19th through the 22nd. You’ll easily tell the two apart. Venus is SO much brighter than Mars (about a hundred times) and the lunar crescent brighter yet. This promises to be one of the best moon-planet gatherings of the year.

Uranus in early twilight (left) just before its dramatic disappearance behind the earth-lit edge of the moon on Feb. 21 as seen from Portland, Maine. 36 minutes later Uranus emerges at the bright crescent’s edge. Both disappearance and reappearance occur in a dark enough sky to see in a small telescope. Source: Stellarium

Here’s a wider view of Uranus and the moon on Feb. 21 as seen from the Midwest about an hour and a quarter after sunset. Source: Stellarium

Ah, but the moon won’t be quite finished with its magic. There’s still the cherry on top. The very same night – Feb. 21 – the crescent covers up or occults the planet Uranus for skywatchers in northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada during twilight. For the Central Time Zone Uranus will lie 0.5° west of the moon, 1° from the Mountain States and 1.5° for the West Coast. Amazing stuff – yet another opportunity to easily spot planet #7 in binoculars.

Map showing where the occultation of Uranus by the moon will be visible. Between the white lines, it’ll be visible in a dark sky. Blue is twilight and the red dotted line is daytime. Uranus is too faint to see in the daytime sky. Click the map to get a list of disappearance and reappearance times for a variety of cities. Credit: IOTA/Occult

Most of the time the moon occults stars along its path since there are a lot more of those than planets. Because they’re so remote, stars are little more than points of light; as the moon moves over them they disappear with surprisingly suddenness. Since Uranus displays a real, measurable disk it takes a second or two to disappear behind the moon’s edge. This should be a very fun occultation for those lucky skywatchers living out East. Maybe it will help take their minds off the unrelenting snow.

Snake-tongued Comet Lovejoy slithers north, slowly fades

Right now Comet Lovejoy’s faint, double-rayed gas tail extends many degrees to the east of the bright coma. Observers using 10×50 and similar binoculars have traced it out to 10° or more. This photo was taken on Jan. 18th. Credit: Chris Schur

Forked tongues allow snakes to smell in stereo – each fork senses slightly different chemicals in the snake’s vicinity and feeds a separate signal to its brain. When combined, they create a complete “picture” of the reptile’s odiferous world. In much the same way, the two ears on opposite sides of our heard allow us to hear the world in rich stereo sound.

Comet Lovejoy’s nucleus is jetting gas and dust just like Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this photo taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on November 22, 2014 from a distance of 18.6 miles (30 km). The nucleus is deliberately overexposed in order to reveal the faint jets of activity. Credits: A/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Lovejoy’s forked tail is hardly an operative organ, but it’s sure amazing sight for stereo eyes. Composed principally of carbon monoxide gas, each of the two primary rays is incredibly well-defined. Gases like water vapor, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide boil off the nucleus as the Sun warms the comet and help create its big blue-green head or coma. As described here before, the solar wind ionizes or electrifies the gases which allows the magnetic fields embedded in the wind to peel back the gases to form a the glowing gas or ion tail.

Comet Lovejoy arcs up into Triangulum the Triangle later this week and continues into Andromeda into Cassiopeia. Northern hemisphere observers are favored, while those in the southern hemisphere will soon see the comet drop below their horizon. This chart shows Lovejoy’s position every 5 days around 7 p.m. (CST). Stars to magnitude +6. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

I hope you’ve had the chance to see Comet Lovejoy. While the naked eye view isn’t impressive (though always a pleasure to behold any comet without optical aid), binoculars clearly show the faint, smoky tail extending east of the fuzzy head. In a telescope, even a fairly large one like the 15-inch (37-cm) reflector I use, the fainter rays are indistinct, though the forked tongue shows a little more clearly.

With the moon now returning to the evening sky (see below) and the comet starting to fade, it will gradually become more difficult to see with the naked eye. By mid-February, Lovejoy will probably have dimmed to the naked eye limit of around magnitude +6. But if you use binoculars, you’ll be able to follow our feathery friend through full moon and beyond.

The returning thin crescent moon gathers with brilliant Venus and fading Mercury low in the west-southwest sky during twilight this evening January 21st. This map shows the sky about 40-50 minutes after sunset. Stellarium

Northern skywatchers are fortunate that the comet continues to move north and ever higher in the sky. By late February it will be circumpolar from many locations and remain visible all night.

You can use the map to help you find Lovejoy as it climbs into Triangulum the Triangle this weekend and from there to Andromeda and Cassiopeia.

Venus and Mercury dance cheek-to-cheek as new year begins

Venus and Mercury shine over the Duluth, Minn. city skyline this evening December 31st about 40 minutes after sunset. Venus was very easy to spot but Mercury quite tricky with the naked eye. Binoculars showed it easily. In the coming nights, Mercury rises higher and will get easier to see. Credit: Bob King

Hey, hey, what’s this? Another planet creeping up on Venus? Just in time for the new year, speedy Mercury is quickly catching up to the goddess world.

Surreptitious Mercury climbs toward Venus in the next week. Tonight you’ll find the innermost planet 3.5° below and right of Venus. Look for the pair starting 20 minutes to a half-hour after sunset. Venus is about 6° high. Source: Stellarium

Starting tonight you can see both inner planets low in the southwest at dusk starting about 20 minutes after sunset. All you need is an open horizon in that direction. Just to make sure you spot Mercury, carry along a pair of binoculars. Focus first on Venus, then place it at the top of the field of view and look along the bottom for Mercury. The photo above will serve as a guide.

Facing southwest on January 10th, we’ll see Venus and Mercury at their closest, under a degree apart. This map shows the sky about 25 minutes after sunset when the two planets will be about 10° high or about one balled fist held at arm’s length. Source: Stellarium

As 2015 begins, Mercury is heading into a splendid evening apparition, reaching its greatest distance from the Sun on January 14th. With Venus as helper planet, this will be one of the best times in the new year to find furtive Mercury.

For six nights starting on the 8th, the two planets will dance cheek-to-cheek only 1° or less apart. Their tightest separation, when they’ll be just 2/3° apart, occurs on January 10th. Great sights lie ahead!


Aqua comet and Venus surprise

A sketch made with Photoshop showing Comet Lovejoy’s pretty aqua-colored coma as it passed very close to the globular cluster M79 in Lepus last night December 28th. The tiny nuclear region was bright and intense. Inside this dusty “cocoon” lies the icy comet itself. Credit: Bob King

If you’ve ever been to the Caribbean you know how enticing the water is. Aqua hues delight the eye, inviting you to jump in for a snorkel or swim. These warm thoughts sailed into my head last night when Comet Lovejoy swam into my telescope. Its huge coma, a little more than half the size of the full moon, glowed a subtle blue-green from carbon molecules boiled off the nucleus fluorescing in sunlight.

Wow! Check this out. Photo taken through a 12.5-inch telescope last night from Arizona shows the comet during its close passage of M79. Credit: Chris Schur

Had the half-moon not been out, I’m sure the comet would have been visible with the naked eye. Come on – it’s already 5th magnitude and still brightening! As it was, Lovejoy showed easily enough in 8×40 binoculars as a fuzzy blob in Lepus the Hare. Through the scope the coma was huge compared to the meek-looking globular cluster M79, a mere 410,000 light years in the far distance despite its apparent proximity to the comet.

Comet Lovejoy was bright enough to nab in a 15-second time exposure with a 200mm telephoto lens last night. Details: f/2.8 at 13 seconds. Credit: Bob King

You can follow Lovejoy for a few more nights until the full moon makes it a challenge. Patience, patience. Come January 6-7, the moon will begin to exit the sky and leave us with welcome darkness, perfect for more Lovejoy looking.

Venus from Peggys Cove, Nova Scotia on December 27th. Look low above the horizon a little more than halfway from the lighthouse to the left edge of the photo. Credit: Carol Behan-Sokolow

Funny story. After more than 3 weeks of clouds, I went out Sunday evening to find Venus after sunset. I drove to an open place and carefully scanned the southwestern horizon about 25 minutes past sundown. After a minute or two without success I wondered whether Venus might be hidden by the distant treeline. Then it hit me. Actually, Venus hit me. Suddenly the planet was there – but MUCH higher than I had thought. My brain was still stuck in the past when the sky had last been clear. In those 3 weeks the planet had climbed high enough to knock me over the head.

Unmistakable Venus, goddess of beauty, seen 30 minutes after sunset yesterday December 28th. Credit: Bob King

So now I can say with confidence that Venus is easily visible from 20-40 minutes after sunset shining brightly in the southwestern sky well to the left of the sunset point. Take a look the next clear night and you might be surprised.

Venus returns, joins exceptionally young moon tonight

Look low in the southwestern sky starting about 20 minutes after sunset this evening for a little spark of light – Venus. About 5° (one binocular field of view) to its upper right you might glimpse the moon, just 20 hours old from the East Coast (21 hours from the Midwest, 22 hours from the mountain states and 23 hours from the West Coast.) Source: Stellarium

Have you noticed something missing lately? Venus has been absent from view since late last summer. We last saw it struggling against the solar glare at dawn.

Now, just in time for the holidays, Venus is returning to the evening sky, low in the southwest after sundown. Tonight there’s even a chance to see it next to an exceptionally thin crescent moon.

Look for the goddess of beauty and love to meet up with the moon some 20 minutes after sundown low in the southwestern sky. Most of us consider seeing a day-old crescent moon quite a feat, but from the Midwest this evening, Luna will be just 21 hours old, a fragile crust if ever there was and a chance to break your personal young moon record.

I’d bring binoculars just to be sure you see the two. Venus will be only 6° above the horizon this evening. Make slow horizontal sweeps with your binoculars to the left of the brightest part of the lingering glow of sunset. As long as the sky is haze-free, Venus should pop into view. Once you’ve nailed it, move to the upper right in the field of view and locate the moon. Now, lower the binoculars and try sighting both with your naked eye alone.

Venus revolves around the Sun interior to Earth’s orbit. Right now it’s still near its greatest distance from Earth on the opposite side of the Sun from us. Over the coming weeks and month, it will draw closer to Earth and grow in apparent size as its phase changes from full to crescent. Source: Wikipedia with additions by the author

Venus underwent superior conjunction on October 25th, when it lined up with the Sun on the opposite side of its orbit from Earth. It was most distant from us then and appeared like a tiny full moon. The planet’s still pretty far away and will remain near the Sun in evening twilight for the next month or so. Although Venus’ orbital speed varies little over its nearly circular orbit, it appears to travel very slowly this winter because it’s very far from us.

Fear not! Its appearance this month is a harbinger for this spring and early summer’s exceptional apparition when the brightest of the planets will catch your eye in the west all evening long.

Looking at the diagram, notice that Venus, moving faster than Earth because it’s closer to the Sun, is slowly catching up with our planet. As it does, the angle it makes to Sun and Earth continuously changes which changes the appearance of Venus. Through a small telescope we can easily see its phase shrink from full to half to crescent exactly like the phases of the moon.

Panels illustrating several of the closest and best conjunctions of Venus and the planets in the coming year. Source: Stellarium

Venus is famous creating spectacular scenes with other bright planets and the moon. We call these events conjunctions. I’ve illustrated a few of them above. The best will occur on July 1st when the sky’s two brightest planets will be just 0.4° apart.

I love it when Venus returns to view. It always puts a bright face on every clear night.

Mars meets Kaus Borealis tonight

Mars passes very close to Kaus Borealis (a.k.a. Lambda Sagittarii) tonight. If your skies are clear, take a look during evening twilight about an hour after sunset low in the southwestern sky. Source: Stellarium

Just a quick heads up. I always like to report when a planet and star pair up in the night sky. That happens to happen tonight (Nov. 3) when Mars passes just 1/2° north of Kaus Borealis, the star at the top of the Teapot of Sagittarius.

To spy this temporary “double star”, go out about an hour after sunset and look low in the southwestern sky. That bright red-orange object is Mars. Immediately to its lower left, you’ll see Kaus Borealis deliciously close.

The sky facing southwest on Nov. 18, 1984 shortly before Venus occulted Kaus Borealis. The map shows the sky from Duluth, Minn. during evening twilight. Source: Stellarium

Kaus Borealis, a name combining the Arabic word for ‘bow’ and the Latin word for ‘northern’, refers to the bow of Sagittarius the Archer, the constellation’s formal name. At magnitude +2.8, the star is easy to spot with the naked eye. Since it lies near the ecliptic, the path followed by the Sun, Moon and planets, it’s occasionally occulted by one of these bodies. Back on the evening of November 18, 1984, Venus passed directly over the star and blanked from view for a time. What a scene! Not only did the star blank out, but Jupiter, the sky’s second brightest planet, shone nearby in the same constellation.

Mars won’t occult Kaus, but for a fun activity tonight and over the next few nights, compare the colors of Mars and the star. Kaus Borealis is an orange subgiant star (not quite as big as Arcturus, an orange giant) 2.3 times as massive as the Sun and 52 times brighter. Is Mars more red or are they nearly the same? Have fun getting acquainted with a star we might otherwise ignore were it not for Mars’ proximity.