As de facto webmaster for Sky & Telescope, I've been keenly aware of the events unfolding this week in the evening sky. Venus and Jupiter have been approaching an extraordinarily close conjunction, which will take place this evening. Meanwhile, Vesta, the brightest asteroid, is poised to thread the narrow gap between the spectacular double star Gamma Leonis and 4.8-magnitude 40 Leonis.
I knew I had to keep these events prominent on our website, but I didn't expect to see any of them myself, since the weather was forecast to be cloudy. So imagine my surprise when I looked out the window yesterday just before leaving work and saw a completely clear, dark blue sky!
By sheer coincidence, it was 15 minutes after sunset — just when I had been telling people to go out and look for Venus and Jupiter. So I grabbed the 7×35 binoculars that I always keep in my office, ran up to the top of the hill in the park across the street, and started to look. Sure enough, Venus was plainly visible to my unaided eyes, below the thin crescent Moon and a smidge to the left, just as advertised.
I couldn't see Jupiter with my eyes alone, but it was plenty obvious through binoculars — and seeming very far away from Venus. Hard to believe that it would close that gap in just 24 hours!
I went out after supper to look for Vesta. When I set up my telescope, the sky was still completely clear, but by the time Gamma Leonis was high enough to locate, the clouds had moved back in. And tonight it's going to be snowing. So although I've been tracking Vesta every clear night for the last week, I'll miss both of the climax nights when it's closest to Gamma Leonis.
Oh well, there's always another year. Seeing Venus and Jupiter so close together was an unexpected bonus; I can't ask for everything.
If you're lucky enough to have clear skies this evening, try to find a spot with an unobstructed west-southwest horizon and take a look for Venus and Jupiter as soon as the Sun has set. They should make a splendid pair through a small scope at 30× or thereabouts. And the crescent Moon above them is no slouch either.
Then, later in the night, take a look for Vesta. It's easy to see even in the smallest binoculars, and might just be visible naked-eye if your skies are really dark. Especially if you've never knowingly seen an asteroid, this is a chance in a lifetime. With the brightest asteroid of all at its brightest for the year, situated right next to a very prominent star, with yet another bright star to mark the way, you may never again find an asteroid so well placed for easy observation.
Click here for more information on Vesta and how to find it.
Oh, and if you have a telescope, don't forget to take a look at Gamma Leonis. 100× should be ample to split this double star into its bright golden components. In any case, enter a comment below and tell us how you did tonight.