March of the planets
On the Ides of March, look for two worlds meeting in the western sky.
March 15 brings the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter. For four hours after sunset, the two brightest planets will move within 3 degrees of each other in the western evening sky as they follow the sun toward the horizon.
Bonus: On March 25, the crescent moon will hover near the two planets, creating a sensational evening spectacle that will include Mercury just about to set on the western horizon - an event that may be hidden by trees, but look for it anyway.
Despite their identical appearances as points of light in the sky, Jupiter is 4 billion miles from Earth while Venus is approximately 26 million.
A telescope or binoculars will reveal unique and sensational surface details on both planets. Because Venus is between Earth and the sun, we can see phases (waxing and waning gibbous and crescent), as we do with the moon. We'll never see a "full" Venus, because that only happens when the planet reaches the other side of the sun from our vantage point.
When Venus is in a crescent phase, it will appear in the morning or evening sky. At that point, it is close enough to Earth for us to witness the phase through only binoculars. Venus will have a dark side and light side just like the moon does during its own crescent phase.
Optical aid allows easy views of at least two of Jupiter's middle cloud bands (its North Equatorial Belt and South Equatorial Belt) and four of its 66 confirmed moons. When I observe Jupiter, I drag everyone within 50 feet to my telescope to see the cloud bands and moons. It's hard to believe such detail emerges across an expanse of 4 billion miles.
Observing Jupiter's moons over several weeks is exciting because, as the moons move along their respective orbital paths, they resemble four little stars and rearrange themselves over very short time periods in relation to one another and the planet. A moon may sometimes disappear when it glides in front of or behind Jupiter.
The next conjunction between Venus and Jupiter will take place May 28, 2013.
While you're outside staring skyward this month at Venus and Jupiter setting together in the west, turn around. Mars rises in the east around 8 p.m., followed by Saturn about two hours later.
March 4 - Mars reaches opposition (Earth is directly between Mars and the sun). Opposition is the best time to observe a planet. This happens with Mars only once every 26 months.
March 8 - Full moon.
March 20 - Spring equinox.
March 22 - New moon.
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