Jimmy Westlake: Planets cluster in evening sky
Several bright planets are converging on our early evening sky this week and should provide for some great sky watching in the nights ahead.
Venus continues to dominate the evening sky as our spectacular evening star. She first becomes visible during bright twilight, about one-third of the way up toward the zenith in the western sky.
Venus outshines everything else in the sky, except for the sun and moon, so it’s not like you can overlook her. It’s easy to understand why this planet was named for the Roman goddess of love and beauty.
Aim a telescope at Venus, and you’ll see what looks like a tiny moon, a little more than half lit this month. The phase will shrink into a thin crescent over the coming weeks until Venus zips between the Earth and sun on Aug. 15.
As twilight fades, you should be able to catch a glimpse of our solar system’s most elusive planet, Mercury. Look about a hand span to the lower right of Venus about an hour after sunset for the much fainter, but still prominent innermost planet.
Mercury reaches its greatest angle from the sun Wednesday night and then it will start descending back into the solar glare and will be gone from view within two weeks. Catch it while you can.
Also in the western sky, but much higher than Venus, is the planet Jupiter.
Jupiter is the second brightest planet in our sky and is always fun to watch through a telescope because its four giant moons are in an ever-changing dance. Galileo discovered these moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto — in the year 1610 with his 30-power telescope, so any backyard telescope today will show them.
Watch the large gap between Venus and Jupiter shrink night by night through this month and next until, on the night of June 30, the two planets almost seem to melt into a single super planet. The duo will appear only 1/3 degree apart that night when both worlds will fit into the eyepiece of your low power telescope at the same time — a very rare occurrence.
A little later in the evening, around 10 p.m. this week, Saturn joins the planet parade, as it rises higher in our southeastern sky. Saturn is approaching its closest point to Earth for the year on the night of May 22, so this is an excellent time to aim your telescope toward the famed ringed planet.
Saturn and its icy rings offer one of the greatest “wow” moments you will experience at the eyepiece of your telescope. You’ll want to share the view with your family and friends, and I hope you will.
Don’t overlook Saturn’s only giant moon, Titan, glowing like a little orange star not far from the rings. Titan is as large as planet Mercury but is nearly 10 times further away from us.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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