Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sorry, I Was Looking at the Planets

Holy cow, if you haven't been outside lately, get out there tonight.  It's amazing.

I should have updated yesterday, but circumstances beyond my control kept me away from my computer most of the day.  But no matter, one day late doesn't really make a big difference right now.  We've got a planet-palooza underway out there tonight, and there's more to come.

If you've been outside on any clear night in the early evening over the past month or so, you've likely seen two brilliant objects shining in the west.  They are well visible even before the Sun fully sets.  Two bright white shining "stars."  Guess what - those two stars are Venus and Jupiter.  Venus is the brighter of the two.  In fact, it's the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and the Moon.  Jupiter may be the biggest planet in the solar system, but it's much further away (about half a billion miles) and so it looks fainter than our lovely next door planetary neighbor.  These two gorgeous planets have reached their closest approach to one another in our sky, and will now begin steadily moving away from one another.  Keep's going to be a phenomenal sight to watch these planets part from one another night after night.

Venus and Jupiter in the skies of Pennsylvania in February 2012.  Photo by Jack Fusco.  Courtesy Astronomy Picture of the Day.

To see our other planetary neighbor, the red planet Mars, simply turn around 180 degrees from where you see Venus and Jupiter.  Mars is shining a beautiful deep orange on the eastern side of the sky, again, easily visible well before the sky is truly dark.  A bit dimmer yet again than Jupiter, it is still an impressive sight, especially since the color of Mars is so very obvious.  Past its brightest and slowly fading, Mars will gently, and later more rapidly, dim from our view over the next few months or so.  Enjoy it while it lasts!

Still not enough?  Wait a while, until Venus and Jupiter have set.  By late evening, golden yellow Saturn will rise and join Mars on the eastern side of the sky.  The color difference is lovely between Mars and Saturn.  Break out your telescope and you'll be treated to an delightful view of Saturn's majestic rings.  Breathtaking!

Did you miss our March star party?  It was a fabulous night of clear crisp skies and brilliant planets.  But don't worry, we'll be doing it again on April 14.  Jupiter will have sunk too close to the Sun for good viewing by then, but Saturn will consent to rise earlier, joining Venus and Mars to maintain a powerful trifecta of planets in the early evening skies.  Plus we'll be marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic with special shows in the planetairum.  You can get more information on our website.  See you in April!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I gotta get back to those planets.  :-)
Carpe noctem!

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