Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chasing beauty

Jupiter is prominent in the western sky at sunset. Mind you, it is not as bright as it can be. It is close to the Sun from our viewpoint, which means it is about as far from the Earth in our respective orbits as it ever gets, way out there beyond the Sun on the other side of the solar system. Still, it outshines anything else in that part of the sky and is easily visible in the twilight.

But Jupiter is moving closer to the Sun (from our perspective, not in actual distance), edging ever deeper into the twilight, setting more quickly after the Sun, becoming more difficult to see.


Venus is creeping up from the sunset horizon into the western sky, six times brighter than Jupiter. On February 16 the two planets will be about half a degree apart, a spectacular, snugly conjunction. But alas, so close to the horizon and deep in the twilight they will be difficult to see.

I'm in an ideal place to try. Generally clear skies. A sea horizon. And at this latitude at this time of the year the ecliptic (the plane of the solar system) is almost vertical to the horizon, which will lift the conjoining planets more conveniently into view.

And, to add to the show, on the 16th a crescent Moon will shepherd the planets to their western rest.

So, it's time to start checking it out. We are on the eastern side of a long, thin island. Only a low ridge separates us from the sea in the west. It's a short walk to the ridge, and I was up there last evening. Venus was hurrying after the Sun into the drink, but I didn't see it in the overwhelming twilight, not even with binocs. By the time it got dark enough for Jupiter to wink into visibility, Venus had set. The conjunction will be difficult, if not impossible to see. But I will give it my best try.