Rare Sights for Spring

As spring blooms in the Northern Hemisphere, here’s what’s happening in the night sky!

Venus
On April 3, Venus will pass near a star cluster known as the Pleiades. Also known as the Seven Sisters or M45, the Pleiades lies about 400 light years away from Earth, toward the constellation of the Bull — or Taurus.

Last year as Venus passed close to the Pleiades on June 9, the planet was five degrees south of the star cluster — 20 times farther away than it will be this year. Next year, Venus will be close to the star cluster once more on April 9 — this time at four degrees south of the Seven Sisters. This 2021 passing will be 16 times farther away than the 2020 event.

This year, viewers will have the rare chance at a brilliant view of Venus on April 3. With the naked eye, you will see something similar to the illustration below. However, the best view will be achieved through a pair of binoculars. Don’t miss your shot — Venus won’t make another appearance this close to the Pleiades until 2028!

This illustration -- generated by Bill Cooke using SkySafari Pro software -- captures what the naked eye might see as Venus passes through the Pleiades April 3, 2020.
This illustration — generated by Bill Cooke using SkySafari Pro software — captures what the naked eye might see as Venus passes through the Pleiades April 3, 2020.

Supermoon
We will have a Full Moon on April 7 at 9:35 p.m. CDT, at which time the Moon will be near to its perigee — or the point in its orbit that it is closest to Earth. This proximity will provide the largest appearance of the Moon for the whole year, commonly called a supermoon.

With the Artemis Program, NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. We will collaborate with our commercial and international partners and establish sustainable exploration by 2028. Until that day arrives, the supermoon will put us all a bit closer (physically) to our goal!

Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS
NASA astronomer Tiffany Clements recently captured the below image of Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS using a wide field telescope in New Mexico. Discovered at the end of December 2019 by an automated sky survey searching for Earth-approaching asteroids, this comet could brighten enough to be visible by late May or early June. However, comets are notoriously unpredictable, so stay tuned!

Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS (Credits: NASA/Tiffany Clements)
Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS (Credits: NASA/Tiffany Clements)

Five Planets Align in Early Morning Sky

The graphic below illustrates the five planets as they are visible, with the naked eye, from Huntsville, Alabama.  It shows their positions in the sky around 6:30 AM during the week of January 18 and continuing for the next few days. Mercury will be close to the Sun, over in the East, and Jupiter will be over in the West, with Venus, Saturn, and Mars between the two. Pluto is near Mercury, but is invisible to the eye, requiring a telescope for viewing.

The last time an alignment such as this occurred was about 10 years ago. This pre-sunrise configuration will be similar for other northern latitudes.

In the graphic, the yellow line is the ecliptic, which is the plane of the Earth’s orbit. The orbits of the major planets lie close to this plane, which is why they appear close to the ecliptic in the night sky.

Image generated by Bill Cooke using SkySafari Pro software.
Image generated by Bill Cooke using SkySafari Pro software.

Jupiter and Venus Conjunction

On Tuesday, June 30, there will be a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. A conjunction is a celestial event in which two planets or a planet and the moon or a planet and a star appear close together in the night sky. Conjunctions have no real astronomical value, but they are nice to view. While conjunctions aren’t as rare as one might think, this conjunction of Jupiter and Venus will be more impressive than most.

The casual backyard observer may have noticed that these two planets have been moving closer together for the past few weeks. On June 30, they will be so close that one will be able to hold a finger up and cover both Jupiter and Venus at the same time. In reality, the planets are hundreds of millions of miles apart. On June 30, Venus is about 46 million miles from Earth, and Jupiter is 560 million miles from Earth. Looking up at the sky, Venus appears to be much brighter than Jupiter. That is only because Venus is so much closer to Earth. Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is actually over 11 times bigger than Venus, but it is dimmer when looking at the sky because of its great distance from our planet.

Typically the best conditions for stargazing involve a dark sky, so getting away from urban areas will make stars and faint objects like nebulae and galaxies more visible. The Jupiter and Venus conjunction will be easily bright enough to see from any location, even large cities. The best hours for viewing will be during evening twilight and up until 10:30 PM local time, when the planets will set behind the western horizon.cooke