Over the next 4 weeks, the solar system’s brightest planets will be putting on a spectacular evening show as they start to move into formation over the nights to come.
If you go out just after sunset and look towards the west, you will see Venus and Jupiter popping out of the twilight even before the sky has gone completely dark. After you have found them once or twice you will be able to find them earlier. Seeing these two brilliant planets surrounded by darkening blue of the evening sky is a lovely sight.
If you go out at the next night, the view improves, because Venus and Jupiter are converging. In mid-February they were about 20 degrees apart but by the end of the month, the angle narrows to only 10 degrees—so close that you can hide them together behind your outstretched palm. Their combined beauty grows each night as the distance between them shrinks.
A special night to look is Saturday, February 25th, when the crescent Moon moves in to form a slender heavenly triangle with Venus, Jupiter and the Moon as its vertices. One night later, on Sunday, February 26th, it happens again. This arrangement will be visible all around the world, from city and countryside alike. The Moon, Venus and Jupiter are the brightest objects in the night sky; together they can shine through city lights, fog, and even some clouds.
After hopping from Venus to Jupiter in late February, the Moon exits stage left, but the show is far from over.
In March, Venus and Jupiter continue their relentless convergence until, on March 12th and 13th, the duo lie only three degrees apart—a spectacular double beacon in the sunset sky. Now you’ll be able to hide them together behind a pair of outstretched fingertips.
There’s something mesmerizing about stars and planets bunched together in this way. This strange phenomenon is due to the fact that your eye works in much the same way as a digital camera does. In front, there is a lens which focuses the light and the retina acts like a photo-array behind the lens to capture the image of what you see. The retina is made up of rods and cones which are the organic equivalent of electronic pixels.
There’s a tiny patch of tissue near the centre of the retina where cones are extra-densely packed. This is called “the fovea.” This enables you to see objects in high definition – it is critical to everyday tasks such as reading, driving and watching television. The fovea has the brain’s attention.
The field of view of the fovea is only about five degrees wide. Most nights in March, Venus and Jupiter will fit within that narrow cone. And when they do—presto! It’s spellbinding astronomy.