A February Rendezvous - Jupiter and Venus at Sunset
by John Rummel
February of 1999 is a month to be long-remembered by all casual watchers of the sky. All month long, the planet Jupiter is slowly making its way westward, where it will eventually sink below the horizon until Earth's next swing around the sun. As Jupiter slowly disappears into the sun's glare, Venus is rapidly climbing above the west horizon to take it's place as the brilliant evening star for the next several months. In late February, the two planets will temporarily rendezvous in a startling display of celestial wonder.
Let the Show Begin, Observer's Challenge for February 1999
Just after sunset on the February 17th 1999 Jupiter and Venus will occupy a patch of sky just 5 degrees on a side (5 degrees is about the width of 3 fingers at arm's length). Just below the planetary pair, find a razor-thin sliver of moon just one and a-half days past new.
The next evening, the 18th, the moon will have moved to the upper left of the planets, and their tight grouping will make for an unforgettable sight. But the show's not over. In the days that follow, the moon will move off to the east, but Jupiter and Venus will inch closer and closer for a final rendezvous on the 23rd. On that day, just after sunset, both planets will appear so close in our skies that you can easily cover them both with the tip of your pinky, and have plenty of room left over. Their actual separation at this time will be about 1/5 of a degree (the full moon's diameter is 1/2 degree). Both planets would fit nicely into a medium power telescope field-of-view for a breathtaking spectacle.
Looking west, February 17, 1999, just after sunset.
Looking west after sunset, February 23, 1999. Jupiter and Venus just 1/5degree apart with Mercury now visible at lower right.
For a bonus, watch another 8 days until March 3rd. Just after sunset (6:15 or so), look for a nice planetary lineup. From the bottom up, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. Saturn, by this time the dimmest of the group, will be above the other three by about a fist and a-half.
Some doomsday watchers in need of a dramatic event for the upcoming millennium point to a "grand conjunction" on May 5 2000 as a possible day of disaster for the Earth. It's true that May of 2000 will bring a very interesting grand conjunction, but unfortunately all the planets involved (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) will be so close to the sun that they will be virtually invisible to all but professionals with specialized equipment. No cataclysm is likely since the combined gravitational effect of all the planets is extremely tiny compared with the pull of our own moon.
Conjunctions such as this month's with Venus and Jupiter are not exactly rare - they happen on average once every few years - but they are beautiful and inspiring sights. Forget the gloom and doom naysayers. Sit back and enjoy the magnificent spectacle of our wondrous universe.
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