Steamboat Springs Anytime that the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, appear close to each other in our sky, it is a special event worth seeing.
Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
Next Monday morning, before sunrise, we will be treated to a very close conjunction of these two worlds, so close that you will be able to hide both planets behind the tip of your pinky finger held out at arm’s length. This event is so unusual that it made my top 10 list of celestial events for 2014.
Planetary conjunctions are not all that rare. For example, Mars and Saturn will pass about 3.5 degrees from each other in our evening sky Aug. 25. That means you could fit about seven full moons in the gap between Mars and Saturn. It’s another event that you won’t want to miss, but I wouldn’t call that one spectacular.
When Venus meets Jupiter on Monday morning, they will appear a mere 1/3 of a degree apart, less than the width of a single full moon. Of course, in reality, tens of millions of miles separate these two worlds, Venus being the closer planet to us. They only appear close together because they lie along the same line of sight from Earth, with Jupiter in the far distance.
If you have a telescope available, you’ll want to aim it at Venus and Jupiter. You easily will be able to view both planets in your telescope at the same time. Venus will be the brighter of the two planets and will be displaying a nearly full phase. The ball of Jupiter will appear larger but fainter than Venus. Plus, Jupiter will be sporting its four giant moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
This particular meeting of Venus and Jupiter is even more unusual because it happens right in front of the beautiful Beehive Star Cluster, also called M44, in Cancer. With binoculars and telescope, you will see the two dazzling planets surrounded by dozens of twinkling stars. I definitely would call this conjunction spectacular.
And now for the bad news. This is an event for early risers and will be a challenge to view because the planets will appear so close to the horizon. Start looking at about 5:15 a.m. MDT, very low in the east-northeastern sky. That’s about an hour before sunrise.
At that time, the dazzling duo will appear only 4 degrees above the flat horizon. If there are any mountains or trees in that direction, they likely will block the view. So, plan ahead.
Try spotting the planets a morning or two before their close encounter Monday morning so that you’ll know right where to look. That also will give you the opportunity to watch Venus and Jupiter close in on each other a little bit each morning before the main event.
Here’s wishing you clear skies and flat horizons.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. His "Celestial News" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Westlake's astrophotography website at www.jwestlake.com.