by William J. Bechaver
With the amazing lunar eclipse fresh in our minds, let us continue our memorable views with a spectacular conjunction to close out the month.
This week, the two brightest planets in the sky had a near conjunction in the early morning hours.
As Venus reached its high point in the morning sky earlier this month, it is now slowly descending, lower day by day, still high in the eastern sky. It is now swinging around the far side of the Sun, and appears lower, or closer to the Sun, each morning.
In turn, Jupiter, the largest planet, swung around the far side of the Sun, and was out of view in late November. But now it has reemerged on the other side of the Sun, climbing higher in the eastern sky in the morning.
And as Venus is sinking, Jupiter rose to meet it in the early morning sky. Now, the two are slowly parting, growing a little further apart as the month progresses and draws to a close.
But on the last day of January, next Thursday, the Moon will join the pair in the early morning sky. In fact, the thin, waxing crescent Moon will be less than one degree away from brilliant Venus on that morning of close conjunction.
Take note of them the morning before, the distance between the two planets, and how far the Moon is above them. Then, on Thursday, the day of conjunction, notice how the planets are a little further apart, but the Moon has joined the pair in a beautiful grouping. That will give you a stark indication how slowly the planets move in relation to each other, and how quickly the Moon moves across the sky as it travels around the Earth.
The amazing pairing of Venus and the Moon will be enhanced by the nearness of Jupiter. The planets are only a couple of degrees apart still, with the Moon less than one degree from Venus.
Venus is brighter than larger Jupiter merely because it is much closer to Earth right now. Venus is still closer than the Sun. Even though Jupiter is much larger, it is much further away on the far side of its orbit, and far beyond the Sun. It is more than six times more distant than is Venus, and more than a half a billion miles distant from Earth.
Venus is a planet much the same size as the Earth. But since it orbits closer to the Sun than are we, it is always closer to Earth than Jupiter.
Jupiter’s orbit lies far beyond that of the Earth, far beyond Mars, beyond the Asteroid belt. Though it is nearly twelve times larger than Venus, Jupiter is always dimmer in our sky, due to its great distance from us. Its distant orbit takes it far beyond the Sun.
The Moon, Venus, and Jupiter will all come together in our early morning sky on Thursday 31 January. Jupiter will rise first, about twenty minutes before the Moon, and a half an hour before Venus. They will all be visible above the horizon just after four o’clock. The Sun doesn’t rise until just after seven, so you have three hours to enjoy the grouping.
They will climb high into the sky even before the sky begins to lighten, giving ample opportunity to view them. Go out and look in the south-eastern sky. First spot the fine crescent Moon, with unmistakable, brilliant Venus very close indeed, and Jupiter just above.
Watch as the morning progresses, and the grouping climbs higher into the sky. Even watch as the sky begins to lighten, and the stars fade away, yet Jupiter and Venus remain visible, almost until the moment the Sun rises, and the sky brightens to fade out the glow of the planets, leaving only the Moon visible during daylight hours.
It will be an amazing spectacle to witness, and it’s a memorable way to close out the month with a spectacular conjunction.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.