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Celestial News: The march of the planets

Jimmy Westlake
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Venus passes in front of the distant Pleiades star cluster once every eight years, as seen in this telescopic view of its last pass on April 3, 2012. Watch Venus in the western sky at dusk later this month as it closes in on the Pleiades for its next spectacular conjunction April 3, 2020. Although no optical aid is required to enjoy the sky show, binoculars or a small telescope will enhance the view. The Pleiades star cluster, also called the Seven Sisters, is about 430 light years from Earth, while Venus is only five light minutes away.
Jimmy Westlake, 2012/courtesy

The planets of our solar system this month continue to delight sky watchers with their close encounters with the each other and the moon.

The excitement begins before dawn Wednesday, March 18, when the waning crescent moon pulls up alongside the planets Jupiter and Mars. The trio will be grouped so tightly that you can cover the three worlds with your thumb held at arm’s length. As a bonus, Saturn shines nearby, about a fist-width to the left of the moon. Look to the southeast between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., before dawn brightens the sky too much. 

Then, only two days later March 20, Mars passes less than 1 degree below the giant planet Jupiter (0.7 degrees to be exact). Jupiter, on top, will be the brighter of the two, shining nearly three times brighter than ruddy Mars. 

If you own a small telescope, focus in on Jupiter and Mars. Both planets should fit nicely into your low-power eyepiece at the same time. Also, keep an eye peeled for Jupiter’s giant moons Ganymede, Callisto and Europa, looking like little stars shimmering beside Jupiter that morning.

Meanwhile, only 7 degrees to the east of this temporary double planet (about a fist-width held at arm’s length), Saturn awaits its turn for a dance with Mars. That chance comes 11 days later when Mars glides just 0.9 degrees beneath the ringed planet Saturn before dawn March 31.

It’s fascinating to watch the planets move in their orbits from night to night, and this conjunction of worlds offers the perfect opportunity. Peer out of your southeast facing window or step out onto your porch for several mornings between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. and watch the cosmic wheels turn before your eyes. You’ll understand why the ancient Greeks called these fascinating objects wandering stars.

Meanwhile, Venus, is putting on its best performance of the year in our early evening sky. On March 24, Venus reaches its greatest elongation of 46 degrees from the Sun and will dominate our western sky, remaining visible for a full four hours after sunset. Glowing as our evening star, Venus will outshine by far every other object in the night sky.  

During the final week of March and the first week of April, watch nightly as Venus creeps up on the beautiful little star cluster of celestial siblings called the Seven Sisters. Also called the Pleiades, Messier 45 and the Subaru (in Japan), the seven main stars of this cluster form a tiny little dipper-shaped smattering of stars. 

On the evening of April 3, Venus will merge right into the star cluster. This is a very unusual event. Venus only approaches the Seven Sisters this closely once every eight years, so don’t miss it. 

For an unforgettable view of Venus’ visit with the Seven Sisters, pull out those binoculars and aim them skyward April 3. The sight of the dazzling goddess of love surrounded by dozens of glittering stars is unforgettable. 

Jimmy Westlake retired from full time teaching at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs in 2017, after 19 years as their professor of physical sciences. “Celestial News” appears monthly in Steamboat Pilot & Today. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography at jwestlake.com.


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