It’s Venus, the brightest thing in the night sky at 9 p.m. Right now and through this weekend it will guide you to two other planets, Mars and Saturn, which are meeting in a nice conjunction just to Venus’ upper left.
All three worlds are getting lower and will be very hard to see in a few weeks. So this is a one-time offer.
Mars has been getting Internet attention. A particular piece of hoax e-mail comes around every summer, claiming that Mars will soon be as big as the Moon in the sky. In reality it is actually very far from Earth, and super-tiny even through the most powerful telescopes.
That hoax is based on an article in the 2003 Old Farmer’s Almanac, where I wrote that through a modest 100-power telescope Mars would look bigger than the Moon appears to the naked eye. It was true back then, in August of 2003, because Mars was having a rare super-close meeting with Earth that summer. Without a ‘scope, however, it didn’t look as big as the Moon; it was just a very bright “star” – a dot. I mean, duh!
Every year since 2003, this same hoax e-mail goes around claiming that this summer, Mars will be bigger than the Moon. It’s particularly silly now, in 2010, because just the opposite is true: Mars is distant and dim and tiny, and getting farther away every night. In fact, it will be almost impossible even to see by the end of August. But do see it now. Here’s how:
Between 8:45 and 9 p.m., look west towards where the Sun set. There’s Venus: in-your-face, simply dazzling. You can’t miss it, unless some major hills or houses are blocking your view of the west. Now look to its upper left: Two stars hover near each other right there. Neither is brilliant; both are just medium-bright. The lower one is a bit orange, and this is Mars. The other is Saturn.
Watch Mars pass Saturn, night by night, showing off its true orbital motion through space. This is one of the best planet conjunctions of 2010. Then, in the weeks to follow, they’ll both fall lower, into the Sun’s glare, while Venus sinks too. So do look now, before Monday evening.
Seeing these three planets together delivers a peculiar satisfaction – hard to explain; some sort of “vibe” or essence. Check it out to see what I mean. Tell me that I’m not crazy.