A star pattern that’s often mistaken for the Little Dipper looks like it’s about to scoop up the evening star. Tonight, the two are separated by about the width of a finger held at arm’s length. But they’ll move even closer over the next couple of nights.
The “evening star” is Venus, our nearest planetary neighbor. Right now, it’s more than 60 million miles away. But it’s rapidly overtaking us in its smaller, faster orbit around the Sun. It’ll pass us by in early June, at a distance of less than 30 million miles.
As darkness falls, look just above Venus for that dipper-shaped pattern of stars -- the Pleiades star cluster. It actually consists of several hundred stars, but depending on your eyesight and the darkness of your night sky, only about a half-dozen are bright enough to see with the eye alone.
These bright stars form a pattern that many think is the Little Dipper, but it’s not. The Little Dipper is a much larger pattern, and it’s anchored by the North Star. Its stars are faint and spread out, though, so it’s tough to see, especially from light-polluted cities.
The stars of the Pleiades aren’t that much brighter than those of the Little Dipper, but they’re clumped much closer together, so they’re easier to find.
Check out the Pleiades the next few nights, as Venus sweeps by. The planet will hover just below the cluster tomorrow night, side by side with it on Tuesday, and then start to move above it on Wednesday.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012