An Alignment of Planets in the Sunset Sky

By: Susie77 , 2:02 PM GMT on February 20, 2012

Cold and Spellbinding: An Alignment of Planets in the Sunset Sky

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Feb. 17, 2012: 
Note to sky watchers: Put on your winter coats. What you’re about to
read might make you feel an uncontrollable urge to dash outside.

The brightest planets in the solar system are lining up in the
evening sky, and you can see the formation—some of it at least—tonight. 

Go out at sunset and look west.  Venus and Jupiter pop out of the
twilight even before the sky fades completely black.  The two brilliant
planets surrounded by evening blue is a beautiful sight.
Cold and Spellbinding (splash, no arrow)
Amateur astronomer Göran Strand photographed Venus and Jupiter converging over Frösön, Sweden, on Feb.12, 2012. [video]

If you go out at the same time tomorrow, the view improves,
because Venus and Jupiter are converging.  In mid-February they are
about 20 degrees apart.  By the end of the month, the angle narrows to
only 10 degrees—so close that you can hide them together behind your
outstretched palm.  Their combined beauty grows each night as the
distance between them shrinks.

A special night to look is Saturday, Feb. 25th, when the crescent Moon moves in to form a slender heavenly triangle with Venus, Jupiter and the Moon as vertices (sky map).  One night later, on Sunday, Feb. 26th, it happens again (sky map).
This arrangement will be visible all around the world, from city and
countryside alike.  The Moon, Venus and Jupiter are the brightest
objects in the night sky; together they can shine through urban lights,
fog, and even some clouds.
Alien Matter (signup)
After hopping from Venus to Jupiter in late February, the Moon exits stage left, but the show is far from over.

In March, Venus and Jupiter continue their relentless convergence until, on March 12th and 13th, the duo lie only three degrees apart—a spectacular double beacon in the sunset sky (sky map).  Now you’ll be able to hide them together behind a pair of outstretched fingertips. 

There’s something mesmerizing about stars and planets bunched
together in this way—and, no, you’re not imagining things when it
happens to you.  The phenomenon is based on the anatomy of the human
Cold and Spellbinding (fovea)
The fovea is responsible for our central, sharpest vision. [more]

"Your eye is a bit like a digital camera," explains optometrist
Dr. Stuart Hiroyasu of Bishop, California. "There's a lens in front to
focus the light, and a photo-array behind the lens to capture the image.
The photo-array in your eye is called the retina. It's made of rods and
cones, the organic equivalent of electronic pixels."

There’s a tiny patch of tissue near the center of the retina where
cones are extra-densely packed. This is called “the fovea.”

"Whatever you see with the fovea, you see in high-definition,"
Hiroyasu says. The fovea is critical to reading, driving, watching
television. The fovea has the brain's attention.

The field of view of the fovea is only about five degrees wide.
Most nights in March, Venus and Jupiter will fit within that narrow
cone.  And when they do—presto!  It’s spellbinding astronomy.

Standing outdoors, mesmerized by planets aligned in a late winter
sunset, you might just forget how cold you feel.  Bring a coat anyway….

Author:Dr. Tony Phillips| Production editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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