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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Celestial Trio of Planets Puts on Spectacular Show

Venus has been putting on a magnificent display this spring and summer as the bright, shinning beacon of the Evening Star, visible in the west at dusk and just after sunset. It has been one of the brightest objects in the evening sky at magnitude -4.5. During the first and second week of August it will be joined by a close, visual conjunction of two additional planets, Mars and Saturn.

This trio of Venus, Mars and Saturn will be visible together in the west just after dusk in the evening sky throughout the first two weeks of August. On the night of August 7th, the three bright planets will be visible closest together within a 5 degree circle, basically half the length of a fist outstretched at arm's length against the evening sky. This close visual conjunction of the three planets is rarely seen and will form a beautiful sight in the darkening western sky after sunset. It will be fascinating to watch the planets change position relative to each other and the surrounding stars as the month of August progresses.

Venus, Mars and Saturn will be visible just after sunset in the west within a 5 degree circle on the night of August 7, bracketed by the bright stars Zavijava and Zaniah in the constellation Virgo. (Courtesy Starry Night Software.)

On the night of August 12 the trio will be joined by the slivery, new, crescent Moon, adding another beauty mark to the lovely scene in the west. This is the night of the peak of the Perseids meteor shower, so this combination will serve as an early treat to the splendors of the meteor shower to come later that night. Depending on how hazy your horizon is, you may need binoculars to see the three planets, as Mars, especially, will be much dimmer that Venus and Saturn. 

See if you can tell the very subtle differences in color among the three planets. Venus will be pure white, while Mars should be slightly ruddy and Saturn slightly dusky yellow. These colors are very subtle and difficult to see, typically taking a great deal of practice to discern. Although we use regular color names to describe colors of celestial objects, typically to the naked eye these colors are very subtle shades when compared to their more obvious daylight counterparts. Still it is good observational training to look for these color differences. They will considerably enhance your enjoyment of the night sky.

The night sky of Mitzpe Ramon is typically dark and clear, so if you are coming down to view the Perseids meteor shower, you will have this additional splendor to enjoy while waiting for full darkness to bring out the best in the Perseids.

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