For those weary of freezing temperatures, slushy roads and winter’s grip, Friday night’s heavens present a cosmic treat: Enjoy a rush-hour convergence of Venus, Mars and a thin crescent moon.
Gaze to the west-southwest sky at dusk and you’ll see the brilliant, bright Venus waltzing with a dim, red Mars – and the young skinny moon cutting in on the planetary dance. The trio is easy to find, as Venus loiters at -3.9 magnitude (very bright) at about 25 degrees above the horizon. Look closely for Mars, as it appears like a red little pinpoint. A pair of steady binoculars may help you see Mars.
When the sun sets on Friday – officially at 5:51 p.m., according to the U.S. Naval Observatory – the conjunction gets easier to see as dusk turns into night. Both planets and the crescent moon set after 8 p.m.
Should your skies be clear on Saturday night, the moon sneaks up to the balcony to cast an eye on the cosmic couple, as Venus and Mars move closer – that is less than a degree apart – and remain in a seemingly passionate planetary embrace.
While our neighboring Mars (named for the Roman god of war) and Venus (named for the Roman goddess of love) appear close together, they are not. The effervescent Venus is 134 million miles from Earth right now and the red planet Mars is 203 million miles away from us, according to Sky and Telescope magazine. The Moon is just a short jaunt by comparison, at 225,000 miles away.
Over the subsequent nights, the two planets go their separate ways and gazers will find Venus in a higher spot and the pinpoint of Mars below.
Turn around to the eastern heavens at dusk and you’ll spy the gaseous giant Jupiter ascending. It’s bright too, at a nifty -2.5 magnitude, the king of planets is nestled between the front legs of the constellation Leo and the constellation Cancer. Additionary, at about 9 p.m. now, you can spot the famous “H” shape of the Orion constellation in the southern sky. The three points of light in Orion’s belt – Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka – point below to the bright star Sirius in the constellation Canis Major.
Grab some dinner, take a nap and return to view the night sky after midnight. The ringed planet Saturn rises in the eastern sky around 1:20 a.m. now. At zero magnitude, find the large ringed planet caught in between the constellations Scorpius, Libra and Ophiuchus.