Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
Steamboat Springs During the next week or two, you can watch a fascinating celestial event unfold in the pre-dawn sky. The two brightest and most eye-catching planets in our sky are closing in on each other for a remarkable close conjunction on Friday morning.
By far, the brightest planet in our sky is dazzling Venus, named for the Roman goddess of love and beauty. She is often referred to as the Morning Star or the Evening Star, depending on which side of the sun she happens to be. Venus has been our morning star for the past few months, shining with a light unrivaled in the sky. Venus appears bright in our sky because she is close to Earth and is enshrouded by a thick layer of very reflective, yellow-white clouds. Sunlight reflects from Venus' clouds almost like a mirror.
Jupiter is bright because it is big, the king of the planets in our solar system. Although Jupiter is many times larger than Venus, it lies many times farther from us than Venus, so it is not quite able to outshine the queen of the night. Jupiter recently passed behind the sun as viewed from Earth, and it is just now emerging from the solar glare before dawn.
On Jan. 22, the two bright planets will appear about 10 degrees apart, or about the width of your clenched fist held at arm's length. Each passing day, though, will bring the planets closer together, by about one degree each day. On Friday, Venus and Jupiter will appear less than 1 degree apart and will provide a breathtaking spectacle in the pre-dawn sky. You'll need a clear, unobstructed view of the Southeast horizon to watch the show. The pair of planets will rise at about 5:30 a.m. local time, but will be best viewed at about 6:30 a.m. when they are higher in the sky. The slender crescent moon also will be visible about 30 degrees to the upper right of the planets. Each morning thereafter, Venus and Jupiter will separate from each other at the rate of a degree per day, while the crescent moon draws closer and closer. On the mornings of Feb 3 and 4, the skinny moon will sit right beside the duo of bright planets for more unforgettable views.
Venus and Jupiter are destined to meet again later this year, on Dec. 1. This second meeting will be in the early evening sky instead of the early morning sky, but the sky's two brightest planets will not pass nearly as close to each other in December as they will on Friday. If the sky is clear, you won't want to miss this pre-dawn sky show!