Today we are going to break with our early evening tradition and check out the sky at 6:00 AM Saturday morning. Yes, it’s early, but the unusual sight in the east is worth it. In the eastern sky, just above the horizon is an unusual grouping of planets. Not one, or two but four planets are grouped closely together – Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter. The close grouping is purely a line of sight phenomena though, in reality the planets are many millions of miles apart. Mercury happens to be closest to us at the moment, followed by Venus, then Mars. Jupiter is further from us than all of the distances of the others combined.
Such a close grouping of planets is called a conjunction; technically a conjunction occurs when the right ascensions (the celestial equivalent of longitude) of two planets are the same, but the word is in common use for close passes such as this one. The actual official conjunction of Mercury, Venus and Jupiter happens on May 11th. At their closest on May 11th Venus and Jupiter will only be separated by about the apparent width of the full Moon. Venus can actually pass directly in front of Jupiter on extremely rare occasions, but that will not happen in our lifetimes.
The viewing window is rather narrow; at 5:30AM the planets have not yet fully risen, by 6:30AM the rising Sun is likely to have blotted all but Venus out. It is likely that to see Mars and possibly Mercury binoculars may be required as the murk can be rather thick near the horizon. In addition, the whole show takes place at less than 10 degrees above the horizon so a clear view may be difficult to obtain. Please use extra caution to protect your eyes; stop using binoculars before the Sun rises – you do not want to accidently sweep your binoculars across the rising Sun!
See you next time!
Mr. Usher is President of the Everglades Astronomical Society which meets every second Tuesday at 7:00PM at the Norris Center, Cambier Park, Naples.