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This Week's Night Sky: Planets Meet Up, Orionid Meteors Fly

Catch pieces of Halley's Comet streaking through the dark, along with Venus, Jupiter, and Mars in a cluster.

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The brightest planets in the sky—Venus, Jupiter and Mars, illustrated—will converge this week above the eastern horizon at dawn. It will be their closest gathering until 2018. 


Zodiacal Lights.  Starting at morning twilight on Tuesday, look for a ghostly pyramid-shaped light rising this week above the eastern horizon. Known as False Dawn or Zodiacal Lights, sunlight refracted by dust between the planets creates a subtle glow at this time of year. The lights are best seen from the Northern Hemisphere, in the dark countryside far from a city.

Orionid Meteors.  From late night Tuesday through Thursday morning, ten to 20 shooting stars per hour will zip across the night sky.  As meteor showers go, this one is more of a sprinkle, but the Orionids make up for modest performance with a distinguished pedigree. Orionid shooting stars are part of the debris shed from the most famous of all Earth's icy visitors, Halley’s Comet.

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This simulated view of the eastern sky at dawn Wednesday shows where Venus, Jupiter, and Mars will appear clustered together, with Mercury hanging out below. 


Individual meteor streaks can be traced back to the shower’s namesake constellation Orion, which rises in the northeast in the overnight hours. Absolute peak is expected sometime late night on the 21st into the early morning hours of the 22nd.  

Planets Converge. Early risers on Wednesday and the rest of the week get an ever-more stunning view of the bright planets Venus, Jupiter, and Mars as they converge.

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The moon will point the way to the faint blue planet Neptune, which will be visible through backyard telescopes in the constellation Aquarius. 


On Monday, all three worlds are within five degrees of each other, meaning they can all be easily covered with an outstretched fist—and will remain this close until Halloween. There's even a chance to glimpse a fourth planet in the sky show: the elusive and faint Mercury. Keen skywatchers with a clear line of sight to the eastern horizon can look for Mercury very low in the sky, to the lower left of the rest of the planets.

Moon and Neptune.  There's one more planet visible in the night sky this week, far more distant than the others: Neptune. Once darkness falls on Friday, look for the waxing gibbous moon rising in the southeast sky. The moon is nestled within the faint Aquarius constellation and will guide you to the planet Neptune, to its right.  

The tiny blue-tinged disk of this distant ice giant is just visible through binoculars as a faint star, but is best hunted down with a backyard telescope. The moon and Neptune will appear only four degrees apart, less than the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length.  

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The gap between Venus and Jupiter will narrow to its closest for the year on Sunday morning.


Venus and Jupiter.  The two brightest planets have their closest encounter on Sunday morning.

Jupiter and Venus will appear separated by only one degree, equal to a thumb's width at arm’s length, making for a great photo opportunity. Their apparent proximity to each other, however, is due to Earth’s position in relation to the two planets. In reality, Venus is 61 million miles (98 million kilometers) from Earth, while Jupiter is 570 million miles (910 million kilometers) distant.

Clear skies!

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.

 

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