January 31, 2008
Venus and Jupiter Converge this Week
Wake up before dawn on an arctic-cold February morning .... and go outside?
This Friday you'll be glad you did.
The two brightest planets in the Solar System, Venus and Jupiter, are converging for a spectacular close encounter. The best time to look: Friday morning, February 1st. Venus and Jupiter will be so close together, you can hide them behind the tip of your index finger held at arm's length.
You'll need a clear view of the southeastern horizon to see the show. Venus and Jupiter will be hanging low, like landing airplanes, easily hidden behind tall buildings or trees. So go out beforehand (at noon when it is warmer) and find a gap to look through so you won't have to hunt for one in the dark on Friday.
It's worth the effort because Venus and Jupiter will be less than 1o apart, like twin headlights piercing the rosy glow of sunrise. It's a beautiful scene. In fact, you may not be able to take your eyes off of it. Venus and Jupiter are literally spellbinding.
There is a physiological basis for this phenomenon. When two planets appear so close together, they grab an extra share of your brain's attention. Consider the following:
"Your eye is like a digital camera," explains Dr. Stuart Hiroyasu, O.D., of Bishop, California. "There's a lens in front to focus the light, and a photo-array behind the lens to capture the image. The photo-array in your eye is called the retina. It's made of rods and cones, the fleshy organic equivalent of electronic pixels."
Near the center of the retina lies the fovea, a patch of tissue 1.5 millimeters wide where cones are extra-densely packed. "Whatever you see with the fovea, you see in high-definition," he says. The fovea is critical to reading, driving, watching television. The fovea has the brain's attention.
The field of view of the fovea is only about five degrees wide. On Friday morning, Venus and Jupiter will fit together inside that narrow angle, signaling to the brain, "this is worth watching!"
If you can tear your eyes off Venus and Jupiter, glance to the right: Another close encounter is underway. The crescent Moon appears directly beside the red giant star Antares. With only 2o between them, the Moon and Antares will fit inside your fovea as well.
Friday morning should not be missed, but if you do miss it, don't worry, the show continues as February unfolds. Venus and Jupiter will remain relatively close together for several days to come while the Moon moves in to join them. Mornings of note include Sunday, Feb. 3rd, when the Moon, Venus and Jupiter arrange themselves in a slightly-bent line, and Monday, Feb. 4th, when the trio form one of the most exquisite celestial triangles you'll ever see.
Image caption: Venus and Jupiter converging but still far apart on Jan. 23rd. Photo credit: Thierry Demange of Strasbourg, France.
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