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Astro Bob: Kissing planets! Jupiter and Venus embrace on March 1

The two brightest evening planets will make a spectacular pair on Wednesday, March 1. We also have an excellent chance for northern lights on Sunday night, Feb. 26.

Venus Jupiter Rainy Lake
Jupiter (top) and Venus shine together through high clouds over Rainy Lake near International Falls Friday night, Feb. 24 during a winter stargazing event held at Voyageurs National Park. The two planets will be closer yet on Sunday, Feb. 26 and closest on March 1.
Contributed / Bob King

You've probably caught sight of Jupiter and Venus at dusk this winter. The sky's two brightest planets have been slowly approaching each other for weeks. And the closer they draw together the more exciting the view. There's a kind of cosmic electricity generated when two bright celestial objects come together. Not the shocking kind but the anticipation of something special about to happen.

Venus Jupiter March 1
On March 1, Venus and Jupiter will be closest together in the western sky at dusk. You'll easily see both without optical aid. After that date, the two will slowly separate, with Jupiter headed down toward the western horizon and Venus sliding upward. If it's cloudy that day, they'll still be quite close a few days before and after March 1.
Contributed / Stellarium

We won't have to wait long. On Wednesday evening, Jupiter and Venus will be closest โ€” just 0.5 degrees apart, equal to one full-moon diameter. Shining side by side like a distant pair of luminous eyes, all you'll need is good weather to meet their gaze. Best views will be from an hour to 90 minutes after sunset. Just face the western sky and look up โ€” they'll be impossible to miss. For planning purposes check the time of your local sunset at timeanddate.com/sun .

Both planets are covered in clouds which reflect a lot of sunlight, the reason they're so brilliant. Jupiter spans more than 11 Venuses, so you'd think it would be the brighter of the two. But Venus is four times closer, so the smaller planet noticeably outshines the gas giant.

I always enjoy planetary conjunctions because they give the appearance of objects almost touching. But as we just learned, planets lie at vastly difference distances. We only see them close together because they appear along the same line of sight, the same way you might see the moon line up above a church steeple.

Solar system
The planets, sun and moon all orbit approximately in the same plane. As we gaze across the solar system from Earth, planets occasionally fall along the same line of sight and appear to pass near each other in conjunction.
Contributed / NASA

The reason planets (or the moon and a planet) occasionally align is because we live in a pancake-flat solar system where all these objects orbit in nearly in the same plane. As we look out towards the planets from our from our mobile blue observatory, better known as Earth, our gaze is constrained to that plane, making it inevitable that near and far planets will occasionally fall along the same sight line.

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Jupiter Venus approach
Seen from Earth right now, Venus is moving up and away from the sun. At the same time, Jupiter is sliding westward in the direction of the sun. The two worlds will "meet" on March 1.
Contributed / Stellarium

When they do, we see them paired up in conjunction. Because planets are always on the move, Venus and Jupiter will slowly separate after March 1. Two things make that happen. Venus is moving up and away from the sun (toward the east) from our perspective.

Jupiter Venus in a telescope
If you have a small telescope, you'll see three moons strung out to the east of Jupiter on the night of the conjunction using a magnification of 20x or more. Venus will look like a tiny gibbous moon.
Contributed / Stellarium

Meanwhile, Jupiter is sliding westward along with all the other stars in the western sky to make room for the spring-time constellations rising in the east. Earth's changing position along its orbit as it circles the sun causes the stars and planets in the eastern sky to slowly drift to the west over the seasons. The same motions that brought the two together will soon split them apart.

What happens though if you have cloudy skies? Venus and Jupiter will still be close for a few days, so you can continue to enjoy the show. You can also watch the conjunction online. Astronomer Gianluca Masi will livestream the event on both March 1 and March 2 starting at 2:30 p.m. Central Time on his Virtual Telescope website .

Aurora alert!

Aurora Feb 15, 2023
The last significant aurora seen across the Upper Midwest occurred on Feb. 15-16, 2023. This photo captures colorful, rayed arcs from just north of Duluth, Minnesota that night.
Contributed / Bob King

As if the conjunction weren't enough, space weather experts predict a significant G2 geomagnetic storm on Sunday night, Feb. 26. The cause is a combination of a coronal hole, a gusher of high-speed particles from the sun, and a coronal mass ejection, another shot of solar stuff caused by a flare on Feb. 24.

According to the latest forecast activity will start with a minor G1 storm, with aurora possibly visible low in the northern sky as early as nightfall. But the main show is expected after 9 p.m., probably from about 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Find a place with an open view to the north with as few cities as possible in that direction for a good view. I'll post updates on the Astro Bob Facebook page .

"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at nightsky55@gmail.com.
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