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February 2004 Feature: Venus & Jupiter

Shortly after sunset, the planet Venus beams in your western sky. Bright and beautiful, the Queen of the Planets outshines every heavenly body except for the Sun and the Moon. In a dark enough setting, Venus can even cast a shadow.

In early February, Venus sets some three and one half hours after the Sun, at which time you can watch Jupiter, the King of the Planets, rising in your eastern sky. Though it's dimmer than Venus, it's still the fourth brightest heavenly body to grace the sky. Not bad, when you consider that Venus is our next door neighbor and that Jupiter lodges in the hinterlands -- some five times Earth's distance from the Sun.

You might think there isn't enough room in the sky for both the Queen and the King of Planets. Actually, Venus sets later and Jupiter rises earlier throughout the month, so by the month's end, you should have little trouble seeing both planets at the same time. In fact, the classical naked-eye planets -- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn -- are slowly but surely gearing up for their springtime rendez-vous. All five will adorn the early evening sky in late March and early April.

Meanwhile, four of the five are visible now. Use the constellation Orion to find Saturn, then draw a line upward through Orion's Belt to find the ruddy star Aldebaran and the Pleiades star cluster. Starting at Saturn, draw another line -- taking it between the Pleiades and Aldebaran, and continuing onward for roughly twice the distance. You'll see what looks like a moderately bright star, which is really the planet Mars. Its brightness and color nearly match that of Aldebaran, the glaring eye of Taurus, the bull. (If you have trouble distinguishing color, try binoculars.)

Another way to catch the planets is to use the Moon. The Moon pairs with Saturn on the evenings of February 2 and 29. Jupiter shines beneath the Moon on the evening of Febraury 7 and above the Moon on February 8. The crescent Moon and Venus make a picturesque couple at dusk on the 23rd, and the Moon and Mars finally make their close encounter on February 25.

Next month, we'll get the inside scoop on Mercury, which strolls into the evening sky at the birth of spring...

copyright 2004 by Bruce McClure

Do you know the connection between birthstones and the signs of the zodiac? Read about February's birthstone, amethyst, and about other monthly birthstones, courtesy of Earth and Sky.
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