Thursday, January 12, 2012
Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
Steamboat Springs Venus, the lovely evening star, is dominating our evening sky right now. She is the first “star” that you’ll see pop out of the evening twilight, so feel free to make a wish on her. The only other object that you might confuse for Venus is the planet Jupiter, which is halfway across the sky from Venus and not quite as bright.
Venus appears so dazzling in our sky for a couple of reasons: First and foremost, Venus is covered in very reflective clouds so that she gleams like a mirror in the sunshine. Second, Venus is relatively close to Earth right now, just more than one astronomical unit away. That distance will decrease during the coming weeks, and Venus will become even brighter in our sky — a blazing star in the evening twilight.
Here are some of the celestial highlights involving Venus this winter and spring while she is in our evening sky:
■ The slender crescent moon will join Venus once each month for a gorgeous conjunction on the evenings of Jan. 26, Feb. 25, March 26, April 24 and May 22. The March 26 conjunction will be the closest and most striking, with Venus and the moon only 3.5 degrees apart.
■ The next night, March 27, Venus reaches its greatest angle away from the sun at 46 degrees and won’t set until nearly 11:30 p.m. Watch as Jupiter closes in on Venus in the coming weeks.
■ The sky’s two brightest planets will pass just 3 degrees from each other on the evening of March 13 in a spectacular conjunction. Then, Venus’ path will take her right through the glittering Pleiades star cluster on the evenings of April 2 and 3. Use binoculars to see the Queen of the Night surrounded by dozens of twinkly Pleiades.
■ Venus reaches inferior conjunction June 5 when it passes between Earth and the sun and makes the transition from our evening sky into our morning sky. This event usually is not noteworthy, but during this particular inferior conjunction, Venus actually will pass in front of the sun for us, creating a miniature solar eclipse. Venus only performs this stunt once or twice every 120 years, so it is among the rarest of celestial events. On the late afternoon and evening of June 5, if you have a safe solar filter, you can watch Venus as she slowly transits across the face of the sun. If you miss this transit, you will never see another one. The next transit isn’t until 2117, so enjoy watching Venus this season as she brightens our evening sky and heads for her ultra-rare rendezvous with the sun June 5.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. Visit his website at www.jwestlake.com.