Astro Bob: Oh, how pretty! Venus, Jupiter, slender moon converge at dawn
About an hour before sunrise Wednesday, April 27, the two brightest planets and waning moon scrunch together in the southeastern sky.
DULUTH — I hope your skies were better than mine for the recent Lyrid meteor shower on April 21-22. Cirrus clouds spread everywhere, but there were just enough holes to spot two nice meteors between 10:30 and midnight on the 21st. Totally made my night. Our next shower, the Eta Aquarids, peaks before dawn on May 4-5 with no interference from the moon. I'll share more details about it in an upcoming post.
Celestially speaking, things have been heating up in recent weeks well before the sun rises. Earlier , I shared about seeing four bright planets at dawn. They're still there, all neat and pretty in a row about 35° long. Jupiter sits closest to the horizon and nearest the sun, with Saturn the highest and farthest removed. Full disclosure, there are really five planets. Neptune recently joined the fold, but it's faint and low, making it difficult if not impossible for most observers to see at the moment.
You may have noticed that Venus and Jupiter have been drawing closer together since Jupiter made its first appearance about two weeks ago. On Wednesday April 27, the two will be shoulder to shoulder about 3° or six full-moon-diameters apart. That same morning, the sliver moon drops by and transforms the duo into an eye zinger of a trio in the shape of a right triangle.
From mid-northern latitudes the moon will appear about 4° below Jupiter and rise about 20 minutes after the two planets. If you've never seen a crescent moonrise — and let's be honest, few of us have — start early and find a place with a great view to the east-southeast as far down to the horizon as possible.
Click here to find out when the moon rises for your location, then allow enough time to arrive at your special place and get comfortable. Don't forget binoculars both for the moon (to see the eerie earth-lit portion) and to track down fainter Mars and Saturn in the growing twilight.
When a crescent rises, one tip or both come up first (depending on the moon's orientation) and look like orange "stars." This took me by surprise when I first saw it. You'll also notice that like the full moon, the crescent will appear squished due to refraction (bending of light) near the horizon. Watch for these and other atmospheric oddities when you're out.
Where you live affects the visibility of the planets. While anyone across the U.S. and southern half of Canada will see them the whole lineup, the farther south you go — say, New Orleans versus Fargo — the more steeply they tilt up from the horizon. And the steeper that tilt, the higher they stand in a darker sky, which makes them easier to see.
Twilight length and sunrise time also factor into ease of viewing, especially for the fainter planets Mars and Saturn. As summer approaches, both the start of morning twilight and sunrise comes earlier for observers in the northern U.S. like myself compared to our comrades in the southern states.
All these factors conspire to make the morning sky brighter sooner and keep the planets at somewhat lower altitudes in Duluth compared to New Orleans. But not too much. I saw all four an hour before sunup more than a week ago. Since then, Jupiter's climbed even higher and become easier to spot, and I'm eagerly anticipating Wednesday's gathering as much as you are.
Since Jupiter, Venus and the moon are all bright targets, consider taking a photo of the trio with your mobile phone. Even hand-held, you should be able to capture a pretty scene illuminated by early light.
Jupiter and Venus will continue to draw together in the coming days. On the very last morning of April we'll witness an even more spectacular event — their very close conjunction. More about that later in an upcoming post.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune.