February SkyTalk | Binocular Spectacular – Part II

In last month’s installment, we highlighted a striking “near miss” (or conjunction) of the two innermost planets of our Solar System—Venus and Mercury. This month, on the early evening of February 20th, an amazing triple conjunction will occur. And again, although it will be visible to the unaided eye as was last month’s event, the view in binoculars will be nothing short of spectacular!

If skies are clear on the evening of February 20th, look to the west-southwest about an hour after sunset. There you will see bright Venus, and just above it—less than three-quarters of a degree away—will be the much dimmer ruddy planet Mars. But there’s still more! Nearly “touching” this duo to their right (west) will be a super-thin sliver of a crescent Moon, creating an amazing triple conjunction of heavenly bodies! All three objects should fit comfortably within the field of view of most binoculars. Three worlds in one view! And while we’re emphasizing such glasses here, the low power view in small telescopes should also be a fascinating sight and reveal the small non-stellar disks of both planets.

The show actually begins to take shape earlier in the month, where you’ll find Venus shining prominently in the southwest after sundown and Mars positioned some 10 degrees to its upper left (northeast of it). Each night Venus will have moved noticeably closer to the Red Planet, finally nearly merging with it on the 20th. The Moon itself won’t be in the scene until just the night before if you’re lucky enough to spot it in the fading twilight. Following the evening of the conjunction, the two planets will slowly separate from each other in the sky and the Moon will grow in both phase and altitude as it moves ever-eastward in its perpetual orbit.

If you will plan to spend and hour or so of your time while the trio slowly drops towards the horizon from the Earth’s rotation and eventually sets, carefully note the relative positions of the three bodies. You will actually be able to see them slowly moving right before your eyes! Most obvious will be the motion of the Moon, since it serenely sails roughly its own diameter each hour. Many people new to astronomy believe that except for an eclipse of the Moon or an occasional shooting star, the sky is static—that nothing much happens “up there.” But as the events of the past two months clearly demonstrate, nothing could be further from the truth. The heavens are alive with ceaseless fascinating activity! (Even the planet we live on—“Spaceship Earth” as it’s often called—is moving seven different directions at seven different speeds as you read this. But that’s a topic for another issue of Sky Talk!)

— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.