Astro Bob: Venus, Moon tangle Monday night
The moon returns to the evening sky Monday, Dec. 6, and joins Venus in a striking conjunction.
Cross your fingers for clear or at least partly cloudy skies Monday night because there's a show in store. The crescent moon, fresh off the recent solar eclipse, will join Venus in conjunction at dusk. Watch for them from 30 minutes to an hour after sunset low in the southwestern sky. Although the pair sinks closer to the horizon as time passes, it also gets darker, making the view more impressive. With the sun now setting around 4:30-5 p.m., the best viewing time from many U.S. locations will be between 5-6 p.m. local time.
Right now, both the moon and Venus are in their crescent phase. With the naked eye, it's easy to see the lunar crescent, but did you know you can also see the Venus crescent with just binoculars? If you have a pair of 7x35s, 8x40s, 10x50s or similar, focus them first on the moon to obtain the sharpest image. Then aim at Venus and look closely. You should see a crescent that closely mimics the moon.
The best time to see Venus's sickle shape is early on, about 20-40 minutes after sunset, in twilight. A bright sky "tames" the planet's glare, making it easier to discern its shape. Be sure to catch Venus soon because it's now headed back in the direction of the sun and will be lost in the solar glare later this month.
The planet is transitioning from the evening to the morning sky, when it passes directly between the Earth and the sun. From our perspective Venus swings from the "left" or east side of the sun to the "right" or west side.
While you're out, you'll also notice Saturn and Jupiter in a neat row to the upper left of Venus. At first glance, they appear to be equally spaced from one another, but Saturn and Jupiter sit 1 degree farther apart compared to Saturn and Venus (17 degrees versus 16 degrees). As the nights tick by, the separation between Jupiter and Saturn increases. Jupiter, the closer of the two planets to the sun, moves more rapidly across the sky, and outpaces Saturn.
I'm in the southern hemisphere at the moment on a cruise to visit Antarctica and view the eclipse (sadly, cloudy). Here, at my current latitude of 53 degree south, near the Falkland Islands, the entire northern sky is flipped. The Big Dipper and North Star are below my horizon, and Orion stands on his head. The bright evening planets are also arrayed in reverse, with Saturn and Jupiter to the upper right of Venus instead of the upper left. Delightfully mind-bending!
Last night, the sky cleared, so I sought the darkest spots I could find to soak in the southern sky. High winds created swells that pitched the ship every which way. Naturally, that made astrophotography challenging to say the least, but I wanted to share a couple hard-won images with you. Among other sky pleasures I enjoyed connecting the northern winter Milky Way with the southern summer version. The "hidden" half begins below the constellation Canis Major the Greater Dog and continues through Puppis, Carina and the Southern Cross.
Lying on my back on the ship's bow with the wind tearing about, it dawned on me how small I was. Just a speck on a platform moving across a vast, dark ocean. Earth's just a bigger boat on another sea grand beyond comprehension.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob .