After the sun dips below the horizon this evening, look to the southwest. Weather permitting, you’ll be able to see Venus and Jupiter hanging elegantly together just a few degrees apart.
The sun sets at 4:48 p.m. in Washington, 5:30 p.m. in Atlanta and 4:52 p.m. in San Francisco on Tuesday. But no matter where you are, you’ll be treated to the close-range flirting planets as soon as dusk settles in (as long as skies are clear enough, that is).
The two planets appeared closest Sunday but will still be found in near proximity for the next several days. Venus, a touch brighter, shines on the left; Jupiter flanks it on the right.
You can create a map of where the planets will appear in your sky here. Your best bet is to scan the skies right after sunset, before the planets set below the horizon.
In Washington D.C., Jupiter sets just after 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, with Venus following only 7 or 8 minutes later. So as soon as the sky starts to darken, find a location with an unobstructed view just above the horizon.
The two planets are bright enough that, barring any cloud cover, you’ll be able to spot them even in the city amid urban light pollution. Of course, you’ll see them better if your skies are darker, though.
Viewers in rural areas may even catch a glimpse of Saturn lingering above and to the left of Venus. But it’s much fainter.
Pluto will be gazing out up there, too, but we won’t be able to see it — even with most telescopes. It’s so far away and beams back so little light that it’s invisible to us Earth-dwellers. Bummer.
In the coming days, Venus and Jupiter will start to inch apart, but not before being joined by the crescent moon by the end of the week.
On Tuesday night, when you look up, it will be a little enlightening to know what you’re seeing. Venus is the second-closest planet to the sun and is also, on average, the second-closest planet to us. It’s also the brightest body in our night sky (besides the moon).
Venus is just a hair smaller than Earth. On Venus, the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. A day on Venus lasts a whopping 243 Earth days. (A day on Venus also lasts longer than a year on Venus, because the planet rotates about its axis slower than it revolves around the sun.)
On Venus, the atmospheric pressure is about 75 to 100 times as great as on Earth. Anyone who sets foot on the planet would likely be crushed instantly. But that’s not all. With a scorching atmosphere made up almost entirely of carbon dioxide, you’d also be burned and poisoned simultaneously. (Imagine the pressure you’d feel if you swam a half-mile deep in the ocean, not to mention the 900-degree temperatures hot enough to melt lead.) It’s the warmest planet in the solar system, due in part to its strong greenhouse effect.
Of course, you can’t see any of this solely peering at the sky — you’ll just see what looks like a bright star. But there’s something elegant about picturing a world tens of millions of miles away when you glance up at that well-illuminated speck in the vast, empty darkness.
Jupiter, meanwhile, is huge. More than 1,300 Earths could fit inside it. But Jupiter is made out of gas. You couldn’t stand on it if you tried. You’d be pulled toward the center of the planet by its strong gravity, where you’d be crushed. (So, yeah, probably not a great idea to plan a vacation to either there or Venus.)
Jupiter is known for its ferocious “Great Red Spot,” a fierce high-pressure system wider than Earth. It has been observed continuously since 1830 but might be 200 years older. It yields winds of 300 mph along its periphery.
The next conjunction
So if you have a few minutes this evening after sunset, look to the sky. You’re watching the splendor of the solar system unfold before you.