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Posted at 11:13 AM ET, 03/26/2012

Curtain call for moon, Venus, and Jupiter


On Sunday night, March 25, Venus (top) sits atop Jupiter and the crescent Moon (bottom), forming a triangle in the evening sky over Bethesda, Md. (Pooh Shapiro)
On several occasions over the past month, Jupiter, Mars, and Moon have arranged themselves in a captivating triangular formation. Depending on cloud cover where you live, you may or may not have had the opportunity to feast your eyes on them, on either February 25 or 26 or on Sunday night (March 25).

Assuming the skies cooperate (looks good for much of the East Coast, including the D.C. area), tonight (March 26) offers one final opportunity to catch a glimpse.

The Post’s Joel Achenbach offered this colorful overview of this rare set of extraterrestrial circumstances in Sunday’s Post:

What’s unfolding Sunday [last night] and Monday nights [tonight] is a reprise of what happened Feb. 25 and 26, when the crescent moon slipped past Jupiter and Venus. The two planets have a conjunction like this about once every 24 years, said Geoff Chester, spokesman for the U.S. Naval Observatory.

This is what’s known as an evening apparition of Venus (it can be a morning star or an evening star), and it has been particularly sublime because the planet is relatively high in the sky. The second rock from the sun is near its greatest “elongation” — as far as it ever gets from the sun as seen from Earth — and so it’s up in the sky for a long time before it sets.

It’s also preposterously brilliant. Its magnitude is almost at the maximum for Venus — minus 4.4. (The lower the magnitude, the brighter the object.) On a moonless night in a dark place, you can see your shadow in Venusian light, Chester said.

“The circumstances for this evening apparition are about as good as they get,” Chester said. “Then you throw Jupiter into the mix, which is usually the second brightest planet, then you’ve got a couple months when the moon is playing footsie with them. And that’s what makes it particularly interesting.”


Sky map of the Venus and Jupiter conjunction in relation to the moon March 25 and March 26. View full size. (Source: Sky & Telescope. Graphic: James Smallwood/The Washington Post.)
Sunday night, the slender crescent Moon snuggled up to within three degrees of Jupiter (to the right and slightly above) as Venus beamed brilliantly about 10 degrees above them.

Tonight (Monday), the waxing Moon (wider compared to last night) trades places, aligning with Venus (about 3 degrees to its left and slightly above). Jupiter will sit beneath the Moon-Venus pairing.

The best time to view this arrangement begins about 45 minutes after sundown through about 10 p.m.

Additional reading:

Moon and Venus closest in west after sunset March 26 (Earth Sky)

Last Dance for Venus, Jupiter and the Moon (Space.com)

Jupiter and Venus get intimate in night sky (from March 13)

Jupiter, Venus and the Moon dance in night sky; five planets come into view (from February 27)

By  |  11:13 AM ET, 03/26/2012

Categories:  Latest, Astronomy, Space

 
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