A beautiful slow-motion movie plays out in the evening sky the next few nights, as the crescent Moon passes two brilliant planets — the brightest objects in the night sky after the Moon itself. And as a bonus, a third planet lurks below them, although it drops from view early.
As darkness begins to fall this evening, Venus is close to the upper left of the Moon, with Jupiter well above them. And Mercury is below them. Although it's quite low in the sky, it’s bright enough to pick out as long as you have a clear western horizon.
Venus and Jupiter look so bright for different reasons — Venus because it's close by, and Jupiter because it's huge.
Both planets are topped by clouds that reflect most of the sunlight that strikes them back into space. But Venus is close to the Sun and to Earth, so it receives much more sunlight than Jupiter does, and it reflects more of it toward Earth, making it the brightest object in the night sky after the Moon.
Jupiter is hundreds of millions of miles farther out, but it's the biggest planet in the solar system — its diameter is about 12 times greater than Venus's. That's a lot of surface area to receive and reflect sunlight — making Jupiter the third-brightest object in the night sky.
Look for Jupiter and its companions in the west as darkness falls the next few nights. The Moon will sneak past Venus tomorrow night, and Jupiter the night after.
More about this lineup tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.