Astronomy, despite claims to the contrary, is not a great amateur hobby. Telescopes are pretty expensive, and even with a nice one, what are you really seeing up there, anyway? Stars? Planets? They all look the same. That’s why tonight is a very special night indeed: Due to their orbital alignments, Jupiter and Venus will appear to merge together as one big, bright double star.
Jupiter and Venus are, at any given time, the two brightest planets visible in the night sky. That’s owed to Venus being Earth’s closest neighbor to the Sun, and Jupiter just being so gigantic it’d be hard to miss. Of course, despite the illusion, the two are several hundred million miles apart. What we’ll see tonight is their two orbits happening to align in terms of our perspective from Earth.
This is rare event. The next such alignment won’t happen again until August of 2016, and even then it will only be visible from some latitudes. This time, however, just about all of the Northern Hemisphere should be able to enjoy it. Stargazers in the U.S. should look above the western horizon about an hour after sunset, while those in the U.K. should look west at about 10:30 pm local time.
These convergences are made possible thanks to Venus’ quick orbit of the Sun. Earth makes a rotation in 365 Earth days, while Jupiter lumbers its way around in 4,330. Venus, on the other hand, makes the journey in a sporting 225 Earth days. That’s why the two planets, normally far apart in the night sky, have converged so quickly. Just 10 days ago, the distance between the two was about the length of an outstretched thumb. Tonight, you’ll be able to cover them both with the tip of an outstretched pinky.
If there was ever a good reason to take up amateur astronomy, tonight would be it.