The planet Venus, which shines as the brilliant "morning star," will pass just a whisker away from the star Regulus, the "heart" of Leo, the lion, this week. The two will be closest on the morning of October 3.
Like a train barreling down the track, Venus is sliding eastward along the ecliptic — the Sun’s path across the sky. And that trip will carry the brilliant planet past a bright “station” the next few mornings: Regulus, the leading light of Leo, the lion.
The ecliptic also is a close approximation of the paths of the planets. That means that if the Sun were sitting in the middle of a big table, the planets would roll around it on the same tabletop.
Since the ecliptic is viewed from Earth, Earth would fit precisely on the tabletop. But the orbits of the other planets are all tilted a tiny amount compared to Earth’s orbit. Venus is tilted by a little more than three degrees, which means the planet can appear up to that distance away from the ecliptic.
Right now, though, it’s almost directly atop the ecliptic, which is why it’s passing so close to Regulus. The star always maintains the same position relative to the ecliptic. So as the planets pass by it they snuggle close, but just how close depends on where they are in their orbits. At their closest, they can even pass directly in front of Regulus; we’ll have more about that tomorrow.
Look for Regulus just to the lower left of Venus, the brilliant “morning star,” in the hours before dawn tomorrow. They’ll be even closer the next day, with Venus a fraction of a degree below Regulus. After that, Venus will keep on rollin’ down the ecliptic — leaving Regulus behind.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012
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