If you spot clear skies any evening this week, don’t miss your chance to witness a stunning close encounter of the two brightest star-like objects in the sky.
Venus and Jupiter—both dazzling star-like objects—will appear to huddle close together in the sunset skies this week. This will be the planets' nearest approach in over a decade.
Both worlds have been slowly converging over the past several weeks, and on Tuesday, June 30, and Wednesday, July 1, they will reach their tightest grouping, separated by less than half a degree. That’s less than the width of the disk of the full moon. So close that onlookers will be able to cover both planets with just their pinky held at arm’s length.
Astronomers call these celestial meetups conjunctions. And this is the second in a series of three between Venus and Jupiter in over a year. The cosmic duo were a bit tighter on August 18, 2014, and will be a tad farther apart in their next encounter at dawn on October 26.
Even though conjunctions aren't that rare, this series is the best between these planets in about 15 years. If you miss the remaining conjunctions, you'll get another chance next year on August 27.
While limited in their scientific interest, historically Venus and Jupiter conjunctions may be a possible answer to the Star of Bethlehem legend. In the years 2 and 3 B.C. there was a similar series of three stunningly close pairings between the planets that would have caught the eye of ancient astronomers.
Today, the best bet to catch sight of the pretty pairing is to look westward and high the sky beginning a half hour after local sunset. As darkness falls, beacon-like Venus will make its appearance first. Both planets shine so brilliantly, however that observers should have no problem spotting them at dusk. Some novice skywatchers may even mistake them for oncoming lights of airplanes.
Venus will appear about 6 times brighter than Jupiter even though it's only a tenth the size. That’s because Venus is eternally enshrouded with highly reflective white clouds and is much closer to Earth. It's about 56 million miles (90 million kilometers) away while Jupiter is much more distant—some 550 million miles (890 million kilometers). So their apparent proximity to each other is just an optical illusion.
With even the smallest of backyard telescopes, you will be able to spot Venus’s disk, which resembles a miniature version of a quarter moon. With Jupiter, high magnification will showcase its dark cloud belts and four of its largest moons, sitting beside the planet like a row of ducks.
After July 1st, both planets will appear to quickly separate and sink closer to the horizon. They'll be lost in the glare of the sunset by the end of the month. Both will reappear in late August as bright morning stars visible before dawn.
But before that, Venus and Jupiter will offer one last opportunity for an amazing photo at dusk. As a grand finale, the planets will be joined by the razor-thin crescent moon on July 18th. The tight celestial grouping will span no more than 4 degrees—less than the width of the three middle fingers held at arm's length.
Here’s a perfect chance to catch the three brightest nighttime celestial objects huddled together, all in the same field of view of your binoculars.