lifestyle-180509819-ar-0-wvdvlqxglaqe.jpg
Venus, the “Evening Star,” reflecting off the Pacific Ocean on November 1, 2008. [Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia Commons ]

Looking Up: Venus and Jupiter share the evening

Two planets shine like beacons on opposite sides of the sky on May evenings in 2018.

If you have the good fortune to view the stars from a wide open space take a look west-northwest, and then east-southeast.

(In my neck of the woods I am always dodging trees, hills and buildings to see each part of the sky!!)

Low in the western sky as twilight fades, brilliant Venus, second from the sun, shines forth. Twirl yourself around and take in the gleam from gloriously bright planet Jupiter, no. 5 in the solar system lineup.

Venus will be well placed for evening viewing all spring, summer and early fall as it makes its loop around the sun, as seen from our vantage point on Earth (planet no. 3). Venus is currently magnitude -3.9, brighter than any star in the night sky. Although nearly the size of Earth, Venus shines so bright to our eyes due to its relative nearness to us, its proximity to the sun and its perpetual shroud of clouds that reflect back the sunlight very well.

Jupiter is magnitude -2.5, not quite as luminous, but still exceeding any star of the night. Jupiter is much farther from Earth than Venus, and a lot farther from the sun. Its immense size, however, guarantees it so easily seen.

On May 8, Jupiter reaches opposition, meaning it is opposite from the sun and rises at about the time the sun is setting. Jupiter remains visible all night long, well past the time for Venus to call it a night and drop below the horizon.

Jupiter reaches its highest point above the horizon in the south, between midnight and 1 a.m. daylight savings time. If you have a telescope, planets always show best if you look when they are higher in the sky. When a planet, or the moon, are viewed when they are low, the view is more blurred because you are looking through a thicker layer of Earth’s atmosphere. The same condition make the low sun or moon appear distorted, dimmer and reddened.

If you wait up till after midnight (or get up before the morning stars fade away), be sure to look for Saturn and Mars. Saturn, the 6th planet out, rises around midnight, and the Mars, 4th planet from the sun, appears in the southeast at about 1:30 a.m.

Mars and Saturn are currently around 15 degrees apart; red Mars is on the left.

It’s easy to get an approximate measure of degrees on the sky. Hold your fist at arm’s length; your fist spans about 10 degrees. The width of your little finger at arm’s length spans one degree. The full moon, by the way, appears about one half degree across. Believe it or not, the moon, 1,200 miles wide, can be covered up by your little finger with room for another moon!

As the weeks go by, watch as the planets shift and the time when you can see them changes. Mars will reach opposition, rising around sunset, on July 27. At that time, and for several weeks before and after, the Red Planet will be wonderfully bright, a lot closer to us than it is now.

Saturn is at opposition on June 27.

Mercury, the first planet, is poorly seen at this time, deep in the glow of dawn. Using binoculars, look for it about 20 minutes before sunrise just above the eastern horizon.

If you have a telescope, Venus currently appears as a small white disc. Jupiter is an amazing sight with its four largest moons on one side or the other (appearing as tiny stars). You can note how Jupiter appears a little squat, and you may glimpse its dark cloud belts. Saturn reveals its wonderful ring system. Mars is s small, red dot, but this summer it will be big enough to reveal dark surface markings, if you have steady air, good quality optics and have gained experience at the eyepiece.

Last quarter moon, in May 7, is a beautiful sight with eyes alone and incredible in any telescope. The moon will rise around 1:41 a.m. daylight-savings time.

Keep looking up!

— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.

Share This Story