Venus, Jupiter will appear to 'nearly collide' in the night sky this week

Venus, Jupiter will appear to ‘nearly collide’ in the night sky this week

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Early risers on Saturday will be treated to a planetary “conjunction” in the morning skies. NASA says the intermingling of Jupiter and Venus, which will last only two days, will make the planets appear to “almost collide.” The two celestial bodies are among the brightest objects currently present in the night sky.

While those with telescopes should easily be able to distinguish the two planets, there’s a chance that some naked-eye observers may witness a combined radiant overlap between the two.

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The conjunction will be ongoing early on the morning of May 1, but, as the planets head their separate directions in the night sky, the duo will have swapped positions.

In addition to Venus and Jupiter, a trio of other planets will grace the skies, although they’ll probably only be visible for city skywatchers and stargazers with a telescope. In more rural areas, two of the other planets—Mars and Saturn—have already traced a perfect line as the solar system remains splayed out in a glorious splendor. They’ll continue to do so in the days ahead.

A “conjunction” occurs when two planets appear, from the vantage point of Earth, to swipe by one another in the sky. While there’s no specific metric that states how approximate they must be, the commonly accepted definition is within a couple of degrees. Conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter, the two most luminous planets in our skies, are known as “great conjunctions.”

On Dec. 21, 2020, the most spectacular great conjunction in 800 years brought Saturn and Jupiter just a tenth of a degree apart. For comparison, if you held your hand at arm’s length and closed one eye, the apparent width of your pinkie finger would be about a degree. Imagine a sliver of that. That’s about how close Jupiter came to nicking Saturn in 2020. It was the closest they’d been together since March 5, 1226, and the best great conjunction until 2080.

Technically speaking, there’s nothing to say one planet or celestial body can’t pass in front of another. It happens all the time with the Earth, sun and moon. When the moon fully obscures the sun and blocks sunlight from reaching Earth, it’s a total solar eclipse. Eclipses occur when objects are roughly the same apparent size in the sky.

Otherwise, a body that appears smaller may cross the face of a much larger-appearing body, resembling a small speck that intercedes as a blemish on whatever it’s blocking. That’s called a transit. Venus periodically transits in front of the sun, doing so every 243 years. Mercury’s transits are a bit more frequent, the last occurring on Nov. 11, 2019, with the next slated for Nov. 13, 2032. Those are the only two planets that let us witness a solar transit, since they have closer orbits to the sun than we Earthdwellers do.

Saturday morning’s show between Venus and Jupiter won’t be a “great” conjunction by the books, but it still will be “great” by virtue of being both scientifically captivating and visually stimulating.

Venus will appear brighter and on the lower right of the moving planets, while Jupiter sidesteps just a bit above and to the left.

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Your best bet for enjoying the transit will be to look east before sunrise on Saturday, April 30. The predawn and twilight hours will be the best time to do so. That’s because Venus is the second-closest planet to the sun, so usually seeing it requires the sun to be relatively near in the sky — which is the case only at sunrise or sunset.

Venus is going to be about 92.9 million miles away from Earth on Saturday morning, or roughly the same distance as the sun. That may sound like a lot, but consider Jupiter. It’ll be 526.6 million miles away. Even though the two are more than 430 million miles distant, they’ll appear close by just because of where they happen to be in their orbits.

You’ll be able to tell which one is Venus because it will be brighter and yellowish. That’s thanks to the thick sulfuric acid clouds that shroud its atmosphere, trapping heat and allowing the atmosphere to reach a scorching 900-plus degrees. (The atmosphere of Venus is also 90 times heavier than that of Earth, meaning that a person on the surface would be burned to death, crushed to death and poisoned to death all at once. Tourism to Venus is not recommended under current guidelines.)

Jupiter, on the other hand, may seem to have a reddish tinge to the naked eye. The gas giant spins every 10 hours, meaning every Earth day holds about 2.4 Jupiter days, but a “year” on Jupiter is actually 12 years long since it takes so long to orbit the sun.

On Sunday morning, Venus and Jupiter will still be flirting in proximity, but they’ll head their separate ways — Jupiter will rush up and right while Venus lays low to the horizon.

Both weekend days will also permit the viewing of Mars and Saturn under ideal conditions, but they’ll be much fainter and tougher to spot. Just trace a line up and right from Venus and Jupiter and you may run into them. If your skies are dark enough, it could make for a pretty special photo op.

As if that wasn’t enough, parts of South America will enjoy a partial solar eclipse on Saturday, causing the sun to resemble a sickle or a crescent. We’ll see a total lunar eclipse stateside the night of May 15-16.

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