On June 30, those who were fortunate enough to have clear skies may have seen nature’s beautiful and rare illusion. In a rare sight unlikely to be seen for another four years, it appeared as if the two planets, Jupiter and Venus, had aligned. Across the U.S. and U.K. skies, the two planets looked as if they were only a fraction apart, which is a celestial conjunction. The complete convergence of Jupiter and Venus was June 30, as the sun set. The conjunction of the two planets is thought to be responsible for creating the Star of Bethlehem, a signal of the birth of Jesus that the Wise Men followed.
The illusion of the planets being in line-of-sight occurs when the orbits of Jupiter and Venus are on the same side of the sun, as seen from Earth. Venus has an orbit of 225 days, Earth is 365 days, and the orbit of Jupiter is 4,330 days creating a chance alignment. According to Robin Scagell, the vice-president of the Society for Popular Astronomy, the sight of the two brightest planets is truly a sight to be seen. It is a natural coincidence. It is unusual for two such bright planets to come so close together in the midsummer night sky, according to Scagell.
NASA scientist, Bill Cooke, said that conjunctions happen with many different celestial bodies. The scientific definition of conjunction, is a set of circumstances that makes two celestial bodies look like they are close together in the sky. In reality, Jupiter and Venus are separated by millions (or more) miles.
Stargazers around the world were able to view the convergence of Jupiter and Venus in an original celestial miracle on June 30, 2015, between 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Mohammed Yahya Al Hijri from the Oman Astronomical Society told Times of Oman that this celestial event was not a rare, but a unique event. This event was unique because people could see both of the planets with the naked eye and see them aligning. A telescope would have made the image clearer, but it was not necessary. Throughout June, the two celestial bodies were coming towards each other. Earth is 90 million km from Venus and almost 900 million km from Jupiter.
At a low or no magnification, Jupiter could be seen as a circular sphere with its four moons. Venus looks like an oversized crescent. Saleh Said Hamed Al Shidhani with the Oman Astronomical Society says that these two particular celestial bodies are the brightest planets, they are the brightest objects in the sky, with the exception of the moon. At the time of conjunction, Venus was 49 million km and Jupiter was 564 million km from Earth. There is at least one conjunction of these two celestial bodies every year, however, not all of them are visible or as bright as they were on June 30. Sometimes the conjunction happens during the day, according to Shidhani.
NASA believes that the two planets were one-third of a degree apart. That distance is smaller than the width of the full moon as seen from Earth. NASA says that people could hide the planets behind their little finger.
This conjunction was easily visible to the naked eye. In the west around sunset, the planets coming close together was seen. Although conjunctions between Venus and Jupiter are not rare, on June 30, 2015, the planets were in an unusually close conjunction that was worth seeing, says space.com, also this is the closest and the last pairing between Venus and Jupiter for 24-years.
On June 30 was the closest the two planets have come together, they stayed close through the first several days of July. Jupiter and Venus are setting closer to the sun each evening though, making the convergence difficult to see towards the end of the month. Both planets are shifting closer to the Regulus star. On July 18 the three were joined by the crescent moon. The Regulus star is part of the constellation, Leo the Lion.
Saturn can be seen from the southern sky this month. July 25, the moon will above Saturn and to the right. Mercury will be visible at daybreak and it will be low until half-way through the month. Mars is too close to the sun to be seen, however.
On July 1, Venus was not as bright and Jupiter was 0.4 degrees to Venus’ upper right. However, each week the planets will continue to sink lower and set earlier. Jupiter will also start to move away from Venus. If people looked to the sky at twilight, Venus could be seen setting. Venus was the most brilliant on the evening of July 10, but it became noticeably dimmer after then because it will be at a lower altitude. On July 7, Venus will set as twilight ends and by the end of July, Venus will set while the sun is still bright.
The convergence of Venus and Jupiter was June 30. Jupiter, however, sets 140 minutes after the sun at the beginning of July. Even though Jupiter is the second brightest star, binoculars may be required to see Jupiter by July 26 when it sets with the sun. By the end of July, Jupiter sets about an hour after the sun has set.
By Jeanette Smith
Daily Mail: Venus and Jupiter Become the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ in Rare Celestial Illusion
Times of Oman: Double Delight for Stargazers in Oman as Venus and Jupiter Come Together
Space.com: How to See Venus, Saturn, Jupiter and Mercury in July’s Night Sky
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