The Night Sky: Won’t you be my neighbor?

 

This weekend, the three nearest celestial bodies bunch up for our observing pleasure. They’re easy to find and require no telescope or charts. The only challenge: They’re down low in the direction of sunset. So you need to be in a place with a flat unobstructed view of the west. From Kingston, nearly all the malls have parking lots offering such a clear sighting. From the east side of the Hudson, like from any Metro North or Amtrack train station, or from any boat on the river, a clear view is guaranteed.

You get three chances, all in the same 9 to 9:30 p.m. time period. On Friday evening the 11th, Saturday the 12th and Sunday the 13th, the offer holds. On Friday, the hair-thin crescent Moon will float below brilliant Venus. Really low down, scraping the horizon. Saturday at the same time, the crescent Moon, now higher, hovers between Venus and much dimmer, orange Mars. And Sunday evening the Moon floats closely above Mars.

Binoculars will make everything easier to find in the fading twilight. But if you have an unobstructed view, your eyes alone are enough. Here’s their story.

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Venus has been hiding behind the Sun these past few months, and is only now beginning its lovely Evening Star apparition. Though already the night’s brightest “star,” it’ll grow to be twice as bright this fall and much higher up. So you could choose to wait until then and consider this merely a premiere, a first-glance or teaser.

Mars is doing the opposite. It was close and brilliant last fall and is now on the far side of the sun, about as distant and dim as it ever gets. You’ll have to stare hard into the twilight to see it, to the upper left of the Moon and Venus. And the Moon — well, when it’s this slender a crescent, any astronauts there would look our way and see a nearly “Full Earth.” Our planet is currently so bright in the lunar sky that our light illuminates the Moon’s terrain wherever it’s not lit by the Sun. Check out its dark portion all this weekend. You’ll see the majority of the Moon, its dark part, glowing brightly from Earthshine.

What a sight! As for the distances of our three nearest celestial companions, if you could travel at light-speed, you could get from here to the Moon in just under two seconds, to brilliant Venus in about nine minutes and to dim Mars, since it’s now beyond the Sun at the far point in its orbit, in 17 minutes. 

Don’t bother with telescopes. None are favorably positioned or illuminated for high-power views. Your eyes or plain binoculars are good enough.