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SPACE

Planet Party!

March 14th, 2012

Venus/Jupiter conjunction March 13, 2012 (Venus is the brightest light down low on the right. Jupiter is the next brightest light on its left)). Photo credit: Julian Colton via Wikimedia Commons

Venus and Jupiter Get Together in the Sky

by HTE Space Writer Jason Kendall

Every now and then when you look up in the night sky, you see something you that you’re sure isn’t normal.  Sometimes it’s a meteor streaking across the night sky; sometimes it’s an airplane at sunset oddly reflecting sunlight, but sometimes these strange occurrences move really slowly.  Planets and stars look much the same to our eyes at night, with the planets generally brighter than the stars.  But planets are more mysterious; they move slowly night after night, carving a little path between the background stars.  Then, one night, you notice these evening wanderers getting closer to each other.  It’s then that you’re really watching the planets in their dance around the Sun.  As the planets go around the Sun, occasionally you see them in the same place in the sky.  This is called a conjunction.

A conjunction is like watching a few friends running around a big park.  If you have a friend running circles around and near you, and another friend running all the way around the park, occasionally, if you stand in the right place, your two friends can be seen in the same direction.  Now your friend who’s nearby will also look bigger, because he’s nearer, and your friend across the park will look smaller.  But you can line yourself up so you can see them both at once.  That’s what’s happening with Jupiter and Venus right now!  Jupiter is the big kid way across the park and Venus is your little brother right next to you.  So, on March 14 and 15, Jupiter and Venus are close to each other in our sky.

So, how big is our cosmic backyard?  Venus is 75 million miles away and Jupiter is 520 million miles away.  Jupiter is so far that the Juno Spacecraft , currently on route to Jupiter, will take 5 years to get there.

Image courtesy NASA

To see these two planets in our sky, look towards the West at sunset.  To the right of Orion (or to the left if you live in Australia!) are two bright points of light in the sky.  They appear first after sunset, easily visible in the deepening blue of the fading daylight.  Venus is the bright one, and Jupiter is dimmer but right there.

Venus is the second planet from the Sun, and is about the same size as the Earth.  But Venus is no peaceful place.  Probes, landers and telescopes show that the surface of Venus is over 860 degrees Fahrenheit.  That’s hot enough to burn a pizza in seconds.  The planet is so bright in our sky because it is covered with a thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide is what you breathe out.  Take in a breath and hold it.  Now keep holding it.  And keep holding it…  That bad feeling you get is your body using up the oxygen in the air you breathe and filling your lungs with carbon dioxide.  Now breathe out.  Much better.  There’s no oxygen on Venus, so even if you could cool down Venus enough to breathe, you’d still have to bring a proper airtank.

Jupiter is a different world altogether, it’s a gas giant with no solid surface and is the biggest planet in the solar system.  This is strange, because in the sky, it’s not as bright as Venus.  Sometimes we think that a bright star is “larger” than a dim star.  But Jupiter is 1000 times bigger than Venus.  In fact, since Venus and Earth are about the same size, you could make 500 copies of Venus and the Earth, and they still wouldn’t fill up Jupiter.  So, it’s strange that Jupiter’s not that bright.

Even more fun is that you can see this event anywhere on Earth.  So when you look up at it, you can be sure that school kids in Brazil, Kenya, Germany, Russia, China, Iraq and Australia can all see this, and they’ll be looking up in wonder, too.

Be sure to go outside and see this celestial event tonight or tomorrow, because they’ll part ways in a week or so, leaving behind the magic of the conjunction.

Jason loves your questions. Feel free to submit them in the comment/question box below!

Jason Kendall is HTE’s Space Writer. He’s also New York City’s NASA Solar System Ambassador. If you’re in the NYC area, he’s holding a viewing party with the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York in Inwood Park tonight at 7 pm. Jason was also recently on the news talking about the conjunction! 

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13 Comments on “Planet Party!”

  • Charlie says:

    Is this for every night or just for certin nights

    • Jason Kendall says:

      Charlie, the conjunction of the two planets only lasts a few days. If it is clear where you live, then tonight would be a good night still. But the planets won’t disappear, they’ll just not be as close in the sky. So, you can go out and see them anytime. And don’t forget Saturn! If you can stay up late, Saturn rises at about 10:30, and will rise earlier and earlier through the Spring and Summer. But, that’s what’s neat about the planets: they change their locations all the time. “Planet” means “wanderer” in Greek. And they sure do wander! Every night they seem to move a little bit. So go out and look!

  • Prodigy says:

    I saw those a couple days ago?

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