For those of you who rarely stop to notice the night sky, you might want to take a few moments tonight. The planets Venus and Jupiter will be very close together in the Western sky just after sunset. You will see Venus first as it is the brighter of the two now. Shortly thereafter you will be able to see Jupiter in about the 11 o’clock position relative to Venus. The two will be about .3 degrees apart, which is slightly less than the amount of sky you can see through a soda straw. They will not be this close again until late August 2016. In binoculars or a small telescope you will be able to see Venus as a distinct crescent shape and Jupiter as a dull glowing ball. With a telescope you should also be able to resolve three of the four brightest moons of Jupiter.
In reality, or course, they are not close together at all. Venus is about 48 million miles from earth and is between us and the sun. Jupiter is on the opposite side of the sun from us and is roughly 564 million miles away.
If you wait just a few more minutes, you can draw a line between Venus and Jupiter and you will come to a bright Star, this is Regulus, the brightest star in the Constelltion Leo.
If you keep an eye on Venus and Jupiter for the next few days you will notice they are both moving toward Regulus. Because Venus’ orbit is much smaller, and because Venus is moving much faster than Jupiter, Venus will pass Jupiter and meet up with Regulus first!
One last bit of interesting information is that the Ecliptic is easily identifiable from this current alignment. The orbits of the planets in our solar system roughly align in a disc form, therefore they all appear fairly close to a line called the Ecliptic (which is actually the apparent path of the sun across our sky). Because Regulus appears to be right on the ecliptic and Venus and Jupiter are, of course, near the ecliptic (see previous sentence) you can draw a straight line from Venus and Jupiter and through Regulus and extend that across the sky and you will be marking the ecliptic.
Now armed with this knowledge, can you find Saturn?
(Hint: For help see our Planet Tracker)