Planetary conjunction, what’s your function?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 26, 2023

It was hard to miss in the sky on Wednesday.

Just after sunset, the newborn crescent moon was hanging in the western sky with two bright celestial companions, and judging by reactions on social media, they caught the attention of many a casual observer.

The pair accompanying the waxing moon was comprised of the planets Venus and Jupiter, which have been moving closer to each other (from our perspective) and will reach their tightest positions this week.

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Although the brightening moon will have since moved onto a higher spot in the sky, the planets will continue closing in on each other until they are separated by just a half degree after sunset this Wednesday.

While they will still appear as two distinct objects at their closest and won’t overlap, they will be in such proximity that they can both be seen in the single field of view of a common backyard telescope or pair of binoculars that night.

The brighter and lower in the sky of the two, Venus is closer in its orbit to Earth than any other planet in our solar system, and, at a magnitude of -4.0, is the brightest object in our sky outside of the sun and moon.

As an inner planet, closer to the sun than Earth, Venus, like Mercury, can only be observed just after sunset or just before dawn, depending on the time of year and position in its orbit relative to Earth.

With its cloud covering and similar size to Earth, the planet was once thought to be a “sister world” to ours and capable of harboring life and a climate similar to what we know.

But, with the advent of space probes in the latter half of the 20th century, it turns out that the surface of Venus can best be described as nightmarish to humans, with temperatures reaching 872 degrees Fahrenheit and sulfuric acid raining from its clouds.

As for Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is higher in the sky than Venus at the moment and shining at -2.1, the fourth brightest object in our sky. (The brilliant, blue first magnitude star Sirius, which outshines all other stars and can be seen this month when looking south, is fifth).

After Wednesday, Jupiter and Venus will begin to move apart, gradually each night.

Having been highly visible the past several months, Jupiter is now setting a few hours after sunset and it and will soon not be visible for several months.

While not exceedingly rare, planetary conjunctions are still not an everyday occurrence and worth taking a few minutes to see. This one is easy to spot, if just look west after sunset.

— Heath Harrison is The Ironton Tribune’s community editor and has been fascinated by the night sky since reading H.A. Rey’s “Find the Constellations” as a six year old.