Things aren't always what they seem. Consider, for example, three planets that huddle close together in this evening's sky. It's tempting to think that they really are a group -- that they're close together in space. They're not, though -- they're hundreds of millions of miles apart.
The brightest member of this trio is Venus, the "evening star." Saturn stands just a little above Venus, with Mars a little farther to Venus's upper left.
Since Venus shines brightest, you might also expect it to be the closest. And in this case, well, things really are as they seem -- Venus is less than a hundred million miles away. In fact, it's our closest planetary neighbor, just one step inward from the Sun.
But Mars and Saturn are a different matter. To the eye alone, Saturn looks a little brighter. But Saturn is about five times farther than Mars is -- close to a billion miles from Earth. Saturn is a lot bigger than Mars is, though, and the clouds that top its atmosphere reflect more sunlight, so the planet still looks quite bright.
Over the next few days and weeks, the three planets will change their configuration. Venus will pass Saturn, which will soon drop out of sight in the Sun's glare. Venus will then basically pull up even with Mars. They'll remain fairly close together for quite a while.
So enjoy the ever-changing view of these three close-together but wide-spread planets in the evening sky.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.