February 20-21, 2015: ‘Venus and Mars are Alright Tonight.’ — Updated, February 21, 2015.

Note: For optimum viewing, please click on the photos to enlarge and clarify them.

Mark your calendars for this Friday (February 20) and Saturday (February 21) because the twilight skies of Oakland are going to treat us to an unusual event.

Each evening this week, go outside about 6:30pm and look to the west-southwest — you’ll see a bright, white star shining in the twilight. This is the planet Venus. Above Venus is a dimmer, red star. That’s the planet Mars. These next door neighbors of Earth appear to be on a collision course with one another. They’re not — the two planets are approximately 73 million miles apart, with Mars being the more distant of the two, as viewed from Earth.

By Friday evening, these two planets will be so close together in the skies above Oakland that Mars will appear to be almost sitting on top of Venus. As if this isn’t interesting enough, a thin, crescent moon will be just to the right of the planetary duo, making an unusual formation of solar system objects.

By Saturday evening, the two planets will appear to be at their closest (called a planetary conjunction). Mars will be just to the right of Venus. The moon will have moved away, above and slightly to the left of the planets.

But, wait! There’s more! After you’ve taken in Venus and Mars on Saturday evening, grab a pair of binoculars and point them at the crescent moon. Just below and to the right of the moon (at about the 5 o’clock position) will be a faint star. That ‘star’ is the planet Uranus. Because Uranus is so faint, most of us will never see it unless it’s near a more visible object we can use as a guide. So here’s a rare opportunity to view an elusive planet.

Watch Venus and Mars over the next few evenings to see how quickly they approach and then pull away from one another. The best viewing time is between 6:30pm and 7:15pm each evening. Here is how they looked as the week unfolded.

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Venus (below) and Mars, Monday February 16, 2015, 6:45pm PST.

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Venus and Mars, Thursday February 19, 2015, 6:45pm PST.

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Venus, Mars, and the Moon, Friday February 20, 2015, 6:30pm PST.

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Venus, Mars, and the Moon, Friday February 20, 2015, 7:40pm PST. There’s a cloud to the lower right of the moon; the faint crescent to the right of Venus is a reflection caused by the camera.

In the above photo, notice how the relative positions of Venus, Mars, and the Moon have changed from the prior photo which was taken just one hour and ten minutes earlier. Now, they’re almost in a straight line.

Notice the left edge of the crescent moon. The bright crescent ends, then there’s a a bit of darkness and a white dot. That dot is a lunar mountain peak catching the first light of day.

Also, notice that even though the sun is only lighting up the crescent portion of the moon, you can see the entire lunar disk. That’s because sunlight is hitting the Earth and being reflected onto the night side of the Moon, providing some low-level light in the lunar night. It’s similar to the light we see when the moon shines at night, except it’s stronger because the Earth is much bigger than the Moon.

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Venus, Mars, and the Moon, in light cloud cover, Friday February 20, 2015, 7:40pm PST. This is what the sky looked like when viewing the three solar system objects with the naked eye.

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Venus and Mars, Saturday February 21, 2015, 7:30pm PST. Note the color differences. Venus shines bright white, while Mars appears red. This is what the sky looked like when viewing the two planets with the naked eye.

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Moon and Uranus (insert joke here). Uranus is at about the 5pm position, near the bottom of the frame, February 21, 2015, 7:15pm PST. You need to click on the photo to enlarge it, in order to see Uranus. The crescent at the lower right is a reflection caused by the camera.

Be sure to take a few moments to watch this event unfold in our twilight sky. Seldom will you ever see two planets so close together – and the nearby moon and Uranus are bonuses!

Keeping Oakland beautiful is everybody’s business.

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