Whether your an amateur astronomer or just a casual star-gazer, right now is a beautiful, near conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in the constellation Sagittarius. What I like to call a sky pretty. Here’s a chance to get your kids interested in astronomy or just impress your date with a little sky knowledge.
Where to look
South West (SW), right about where the sun is setting or better, just has set. The scene should be the same for anyone in the 30°N latitudes.
When to look
Just as the sunsets. As of this posting that should be just around 1730 hours (5:30 PM) local time.
What to look for
The two bright objects about a hand’s width above the horizon. You really can’t miss them.
What you are seeing
The brighter object, closer to the horizon is the planet Venus, Earth’s nearest neighbor. She has magnitude of -4.02 and is the third brightest object in our sky, out shown only by the Sun and the Moon. Just above Venus is our solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter. The king of the planets has a magnitude of -1.59.
This close conjunction is taking place in the constellation Sagittarius, the hunting centaur. The magnitude 2.05 star below Venus is Nunki (sigma Sgr). This sky pretty is bright enough to be enjoyed with the naked eye. Using a good pair of binoculars may reveal some of the Jovian details, but don’t count on Venus showing you what lies beneath her skirt. One reason Venus is so bright is her highly reflective, dense atmosphere which masks any surface details. If you have access to even a small telescope, you’ll have no trouble seeing the four Galilean moons of Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.
While you’re out, look around for these other bright objects. Up and to the right (slightly west) of Venus and Jupiter, is the star Altair (alpha Aql). Altair is the brightest star (mag. 0.75) of the constellation Aquila, the eagle. Continue west and slightly higher than Altair to find Vega (alpha Lyr) the zero magnitude and brightest star in the tiny constellation Lyra, the lyre.
Continue turning north and you may be able to spot the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) about half way between Vega and the horizon while facing due north. Alpha Umi, is more commonly known as Polaris, the North Star.
This sky pretty will peak on 1 December 2008 when the two planets will be closest together and joined by the crescent moon. Keep your eyes on the sky.