Starwatching in the winter isn't for the lighthearted. Toasty inside our cars, we might catch a glimpse of the waxing moon as we drive home or hurry into the shops, but only the most committed are going to bundle up for a meteor shower scheduled to peak before dawn.
Luckily, the best pagaent the sky offers this winter is easy to spot and on display for a lot longer than a few hours. You may have already noticed two lights so bright in the west that they're shining even before the daylight has drained away. Jupiter and Venus have been gracing our skies since November, but now they're growing closer, getting ready for their spectacular dance next month.
Of the two, Venus – here the 'Evening Star' – is the brightest. One reason is because Venus passes closest to the Earth, as close as 23 million miles. While a much larger planet – 11.8 times larger than Venus – Jupiter is more than 400 million miles away. A second reason is the reflectivity of its atmosphere – a dense miasma of greenhouse gases – that reflect about 70% of all sunlight. Venus is currently the westernmost planet, traveling with the stars of Pisces, while Jupiter lights above in Aries. But over the course of the next month we will see their positions change. Between March 13 and 15, the two will be as close as a degree apart -- a beautiful pairing that will show for upwards of three hours after sunset. Following their pas de deux, Venus will leave the floor first, climbing toward the stars of Taurus, while Jupiter dawdles in Aries, dropping lower toward the horizon.
Viewing west as night falls. Each night the waxing crescent moon will be a little brighter and higher in the sky.
Use the waxing crescent moon at the end of February to track the approaching Venus-Jupiter conjunction. On 2/24, the slender moon will be sneaking up to Venus; on 2/25, the moon will stand next to her; and on 2/26, the moon will move on to pass over Jupiter. Keep your eyes to the west between 2/28 and 3/7 and you may also make out elusive Mercury, as high as 7º above the horizon, the best evening view for Mercury all year long.
By the end of April Jupiter will make its exit from the night sky, and Venus will follow by the end of May (popping up as a shadow across the Sun in June -- but that's another story). As the days grow longer in the Northern Hemisphere and the Earth stands poised to burst into bloom, let these dazzling lights remind you in the nights ahead of the beauty that's here for us all.