Wednesday, June 20 , 2018, 9:24 pm | Fair 63º


Dennis Mammana: Planetary Sky Show Includes a Glimpse of a Double Planet

View the beautiful celestial sights of Venus, Jupiter and Mercury at dusk this week. Click to view larger
View the beautiful celestial sights of Venus, Jupiter and Mercury at dusk this week. ( illustration)

Have you noticed those three bright stars appearing low in the western sky shortly after sunset? Well, I’ve been waiting all summer to tell you about this, because these aren’t stars at all. They’re planets.

Elusive Mercury appears very low in the west this week, and above it appear the two brightest planets, Jupiter and Venus. They're gearing up to put on quite a show for stargazers later this week.

The brighter of the two is Venus, a rocky world that is about the same size as our own Earth and shrouded by highly reflective clouds. The fainter (but still quite bright in its own right) is the gas giant planet Jupiter.

Jupiter and Venus appear to be converging from night to night because they orbit the sun along with our Earth, and our constantly changing viewpoint makes them appear to drift against each other and the more distant and “fixed” stars.

On the evening of Aug. 27, these two will appear remarkably close together, only about 1/10 of a degree apart, and they will form a bright double star in our western sky at dusk. Depending on sky conditions, your location and your vision, you might even need binoculars to see them as two distinct bodies.

This will be a great time to aim a low-powered telescope in their direction, since both will appear in the same field of view. Stargazers will see not only the disk of cloud-covered Venus but also that of Jupiter with its cloud bands and four Galilean moons, which will all appear that night between the two planets. Unfortunately, Jupiter and Venus are so distant right now that they will not appear very large in your eyepiece.

A few evenings later, another solar system body will enter the scene: the moon. On the evening of Sept. 2, Venus will have moved eastward, and the waxing crescent moon — complete with a full disk of Earthshine, light reflecting back onto the lunar dark side from the Earth itself — will appear between the two. You’ll need to get outside about a half-hour after sunset to catch it at its best, though.

Aim binoculars in the direction of the moon-Jupiter pair and you’ll be stunned by how three-dimensional the scene appears. Of course, this is purely an illusion because we’re unable to perceive true depth in the cosmos. But it sure does produce a pretty picture.

And speaking of pretty pictures, this is a great time to try taking photos. You don’t need fancy or expensive equipment; just a camera and tripod will do fine, although a zoom lens would help you produce a larger image.

If you shoot around 20 to 30 minutes after sunset, you can probably trust your camera’s automatic settings. If not, try setting your camera to manual with ISO 100 or 200 and shooting 1/3 of a second or so at f-stop 8. You’ll need to adjust settings as you go, however, since the light changes rapidly at dusk. Don’t be afraid to play around.

Enjoy the planetary sky show, and please email me if you get some nice shots. I’d love to share your success!

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. The opinions expressed are his own.

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