Planetary Dance at Dusk

By Dennis Mammana

November 21, 2019 4 min read

Week of Nov. 24-30, 2019

You may have noticed two bright "stars" shining in the southwestern sky at dusk and appearing much closer to one another from night to night.

Well, these aren't "stars" at all; they're planets — the two brightest in all the heavens — and they are gearing up to put on quite a show for stargazers as November comes to a close.

The brighter of the two is Venus, a world the same size as our own Earth — about 8,200 miles across — and shrouded by highly reflective clouds. The fainter of the two — but still quite bright — is the gas giant planet Jupiter, about 11 times the diameter of the Earth.

If you've been watching the pair the past few nights, you've surely noticed that Jupiter and Venus appear to be converging from night to night. This is because they, along with our Earth, orbit the sun, and our constantly changing viewpoint makes them appear to drift independently against the more distant and "fixed" stars.

On the evening of Sunday, Nov. 24, you will see that these two appear remarkably close together — only one and a half degrees apart — and they will form a bright "double star" in our southwestern sky at dusk.

Over the next couple of nights, watch as the two appear to separate once again. And then, at dusk on Wednesday, Nov. 27, another solar system body will enter the scene: the moon. It'll be pretty tough to see, but if you have a very low horizon in that direction, scan the area with binoculars after sunset and you might be able to catch a glimpse.

If you miss it, don't worry. On the next night, the waxing crescent moon — complete with a full disk of "Earthshine," light reflecting back onto the lunar dark side from the Earth itself — will appear just above this planetary pair. You'll need to get outside about a half-hour after sunset to catch it at its best, though.

By Friday, Nov. 29, however, the moon will have drifted farther eastward on its own orbit and will then appear as a thicker crescent not far from the more distant ringed planet Saturn.

Aim binoculars in the direction of these groupings, and you'll be stunned by how three-dimensional the scene appears. Of course, this is purely an illusion since we're unable to perceive true depth in the cosmos, but it sure does produce a pretty picture.

And speaking of pretty pictures, this is the time to try taking photos. You don't need fancy or expensive equipment; just a camera and tripod will do fine, though a zoom lens will help you to produce a larger image.

If you shoot around 30-40 minutes or so after sunset, you can probably trust your camera's automatic settings. If not, try setting your camera to ISO 100 or 200 and shooting 1/3 of a second or so at f-8.

You'll need to adjust settings as you go, however, since the light changes rapidly at dusk, so don't be afraid to play around with these.

Enjoy the planetary sky show, and please email me if you produce some nice photos. I'd love to share in your success!

 Venus and Jupiter are gearing up to put on quite a show for stargazers as November comes to a close.
Venus and Jupiter are gearing up to put on quite a show for stargazers as November comes to a close.

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