If you look to the west-southwest about thirty minutes after sunset for the next several evenings, you may see something most people won’t notice. Look for an increasingly bright, white star in the sunset glow. That’s the planet Venus, which will grace our skies as the evening star for months to come. Now look below and to the right of Venus – this one will be more difficult to see since it’s 17 times fainter. This faint, yellowish star is the planet Mercury.
Since Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, it’s seldom seen. Venus, the second closest planet to the sun (Earth is third closest), ventures much farther from the sun in our sky, spending months at a time as the evening star and then a similar amount of time as the morning star. Seeing these two ‘inner planets’ so close together is a rare experience.
In the photos below, you’ll see the bright Venus, with much dimmer Mercury below and to the right (you will need to click on the photos to enhance them, in order to see faint Mercury). These photos were taken between January 7 and 12 (the western sky was cloud-covered on the 8th from my location). I used a 300mm zoom lens to make the planets easier to see — with the naked eye, they seem much closer together.
Notice how the planets’ relative positions to one another changed in just a few evenings (they get closer to one another and then move away and Mercury has moved from the 5:30 position with respect to Venus to 3:00 in just a few days). While they are both moving in their orbits around the sun, Mercury is the quicker of the two (hence its name) and is doing most of the apparent moving from night to night.
Photo 2: Bright Venus & dim Mercury (faint star at 5:00 position from Venus) around 5:40pm on Jan. 9 (click on the photo to enlarge and clarify it).
Photo 3: Bright Venus & dim Mercury (faint star at 4:00 position from Venus) around 5:40pm on Jan. 10 (click on the photo to enlarge and clarify it).
Photo 4: Bright Venus & dim Mercury (faint star at 4:00 position from Venus) around 5:40pm on Jan. 11 (click on the photo to enlarge and clarify it).
Photo 5: Bright Venus & dim Mercury (faint star at 3:30 position from Venus) around 5:40pm on Jan. 12 (click on the photo to enlarge and clarify it).
The planets’ closest apparent approach to one another was on January 10th (photo 3). Venus will continue to climb higher into the evening sky while Mercury will soon quickly drop back toward the horizon.
Mercury won’t be visible very long, so be sure to try to see it in the next few evenings. If you’re interested in seeing it, you’ll need to look between about 5:30pm and 6:00pm, before it sets. Be sure to use Venus as a guidepost and look for Mercury lower and to the right.
If you don’t find Mercury, fear not, it will reappear in the morning sky in a few weeks. Venus, on the other hand, will appear to ascend higher and higher into the western sky, existing as the brightest object in the night sky, with the exception of the moon. It will remain the evening star until its orbit takes it back toward the sun this summer.
Keeping Oakland beautiful is everybody’s business.
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