Stargazers around the world were treated to a spectacular celestial embrace between Earth’s two planetary neighbors last night.
Venus and Jupiter — the two brightest planets in the sky — came so close that they almost seemed to collide, or “kiss” each other.
Officially, the two performed a “conjunction” — when two astronomical objects appear close to each other in the sky from Earth.
Although Venus and Jupiter appear side by side to the human eye, they are actually still 400 million miles (600 million km) apart.
Meanwhile, Mercury – the smallest planet in the solar system – will soon be visible from Earth when it reaches its maximum elongation from the sun.
Venus (top) and Jupiter (bottom) – the two brightest planets in the sky – got so close they almost seemed to collide, or look like they were “kissing.” Conjunction as seen from Dunsden in Oxfordshire on March 2, 2023
Although Venus and Jupiter appear side by side, they are actually still 400 million miles (600 million km) apart. On the photo from Salgotarjan
“These sorts of alignments in our sky, known as planet parades, only happen from our perspective here on Earth,” Jake Foster, an astronomy education officer at Royal Museums Greenwich, told MailOnline.
How to spot the planets
Although planets look like bright stars, they don’t “twinkle.” Stars twinkle, while planets usually shine steadily.
Venus is completely covered in a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere and clouds of sulfuric acid that give it a pale yellow appearance.
Jupiter is a light brown color – a pale shade of brown.
Of the others, Saturn has a yellowish tan color, Mercury is whitish, and Mars can be recognized by its distinctive rust-red color.
Source: Adler Planetarium
“The planets themselves are not physically aligned in space during these events, meaning the observed alignment is unique to our perspective.”
Over the past week, the two planets have moved closer and closer, visible to the west not long after sunset.
Venus is the brighter of the two, while Jupiter is fainter and more yellowish in color.
For the past few days, Venus has appeared to be moving up into the sky away from the horizon, while Jupiter has been doing the opposite.
Fortunately for stargazers, Venus will continue to shine in the west for several more months as it gets higher.
Jupiter, meanwhile, will only be visible for a few more weeks as it disappears below the horizon.
So in case you missed it, you still have the opportunity to admire the planets in the sky after sunset tonight.
Jupiter shines twice as bright as Sirius – the brightest star in the sky – while Venus is six times brighter than the gas giant.
Since they are still fairly low on the horizon, finding a spot on a hill and away from tall buildings will provide a good view.
The conjunction of the planets Venus (above) and Jupiter in the sky over Salgotarjan, Hungary, March 2, 2023. Venus appears brighter because it is closer to Earth
Jupiter and Venus create the spectacle as seen from Eindhoven, Netherlands on March 2, 2023. Jupiter shines twice as bright as Sirius (the brightest star in the sky) while Venus is six times brighter than the gas giant
While last night’s conjunction occurred between two planets, a conjunction could also involve asteroids, moons, or even stars.
The term ‘conjunction’ is sometimes used to describe an ‘alignment’ even though there is a difference between the two terms.
A conjunction is a coming together between two objects in the sky, while an alignment is when three or more objects roughly form a straight line.
Of course, while they appear close from Earth, the planets are still millions of miles apart during an alignment.
They only seem to get closer or farther apart in the sky as our view of them through the solar system changes from month to month.
“Alignment is an artifact of a point of view and not something fundamental about the planets themselves,” said Dr. Christopher S. Baird, an assistant professor of physics at West Texas A&M University.
Dr. Baird also said that planets in our solar system never line up in one perfectly straight line “as they show in movies.”
“If you look at a two-dimensional chart of the planets and their orbits on a piece of paper, you might think that all the planets will eventually orbit around the same line.
‘In reality, the planets don’t all rotate perfectly in the same plane. Instead, they swing around in different orbits in three-dimensional space.
“For this reason, they will never be perfectly matched.”
In astronomy, a conjunction occurs when two astronomical objects (such as asteroids, moons, planets, and stars) appear close together in the sky, as observed from Earth
After the Moon, Jupiter and Venus are currently the brightest objects in the sky illuminating the European skyscape. Photographed from Eindhoven
The next major astronomical event worth looking forward to is Mercury’s maximum stretch on April 11.
Maximum elongation is the greatest angular distance between the Sun and a planet in its orbit, as observed from Earth.
This means Mercury will be more visible than usual because it won’t be so obscured by the Sun’s brightness.
Since it’s the smallest planet in our solar system and closest to the sun, it’s best to have binoculars handy to try and find the tiny dot.
Does planetary alignment have an effect on Earth?
The planets in our solar system are never in one perfectly straight line as they show in the movies.
If you look at a two-dimensional chart of the planets and their orbits on a piece of paper, you might think that all the planets will eventually orbit around the same line.
In reality, the planets do not all orbit perfectly in the same plane. Instead, they swing around in different orbits in three-dimensional space. For this reason, they will never be perfectly aligned.
Planetary alignment depends on your point of view. If three planets are in the same region of the sky from Earth’s point of view, they don’t necessarily have to be in the same region of the sky from the Sun’s point of view.
Alignment is therefore an artifact of a point of view and not something fundamental about the planets themselves.
Even if the planets were all aligned in a perfectly straight line, it would have negligible effects on Earth.
Fictional and pseudoscientific authors like to argue that a planetary alignment would mean adding up all the planets’ gravitational fields to make something massive that interferes with life on Earth.
In reality, the gravitational pull of the planets on Earth is so weak that they have no significant effect on life on Earth.
There are only two objects in the solar system with enough gravity to significantly affect the Earth: the moon and the sun.
The sun’s gravity is strong because the sun is so massive. The gravitational effect of the Moon on Earth is strong because the Moon is so close.
The Sun’s gravity causes the Earth’s annual orbit and therefore, when combined with the Earth’s tilt, causes the seasons.
The moon’s gravity is primarily responsible for the daily ocean tides. The near alignment of the sun and moon does have an effect on Earth because their gravitational fields are so strong.
This partial alignment occurs every full moon and new moon and leads to extra strong tides called “spring tides.”
The word ‘spring’ here refers to the fact that the water seems to spring up the shore every two weeks with the extra strong tides – not that they only occur in the spring season.
Source: dr. Christopher S. Baird/West Texas A&M University