Washington state

Dazzling planets attracting stargazers to the evening sky

Warm summer evenings are drawing stargazers into their backyards to watch the solar system’s two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, slide past one another in a dazzling close encounter, perhaps resembling what the Biblical magi called the Star of Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.

A keen-eyed observer can now spot Venus about one-third the distance above the western horizon 15 minutes after sunset. A short time later, Jupiter emerges a few finger widths left of our sister planet.

Less than one hour later both planets command the western sky as they seem to float inside the darkening gray blanket of the coming night . Below that gray flashes a vanishing palette of sapphire, emerald, vermillion, and amber stretching upward from behind distant windswept hills.

With each passing day, Jupiter and Venus draw closer together. By Tuesday June 30 they are at their closest — less than a half moon-width apart. Their conjunction will be a striking sight.

I would not be surprised if this pairing of two bright lights creates a flurry of unidentified flying object reports because both planets are bright, eye catching, and captivating public attention around the world.

Starting July 1, observers can watch Venus and Jupiter begin to distance themselves from one another as they journey downward toward the western horizon.

Both planets remain visible through early August, at which time they are lost in the glare of the setting sun.

Their loss takes place because Venus will pass between Earth and the sun while Jupiter is tucked far behind the sun.

By mid-September, both planets will have moved far enough west of the sun to enter the morning sky as dawn emerges.

With the exception of the moon and sun, nothing in our sky outshines Venus and Jupiter.

Why? Because Venus passes relatively close to Earth (50 million miles away this month) and reflects sunlight like a mirror. On the other hand, Jupiter is the solar system’s largest planet (11 times wider than Earth) though more distant (560 million miles) from us.

As Venus dips lower in the summer sky and grows larger as it orbits closer (27 million miles away) to Earth than any other planet, it offers a unique observing opportunity — to see the planet’s thin crescent shape without using binoculars or a telescope.

No kidding. If you have perfect or 20/20 corrected vision, you can actually spot the planet’s shape.

I wear glasses and have seen the crescent phase of Venus several times.

The key to this challenge is to find Venus soon after sunset while the sky remains light. This lowers the planet’s brightness (and therefore contrast) compared with our own sky.

Do not wait until the sky is dark when Venus shines like a beacon.

The accuracy of your sighting can be confirmed by later viewing Venus with binoculars.

Both casual and devoted observers are drawn to the downpour of evening colors kindled by the setting sun.

And when gleaming planets or the arch of a crescent moon are entangled inside these colors, like insects on a spider’s web, the sky and its offerings invite us to absorb the moment, to reach skyward — and watch the evening’s beauty unfold before us.