Venus, Mars, and a thin crescent Moon will create a stunning sight in our early evening sky on February 20. If skies are clear, find an open spot with an unobstructed horizon and look to the west between 6:15 and 7:00 p.m. At first you may see brilliant Venus next to a thin, crescent Moon. As twilight fades, fainter Mars will appear between Venus and the Moon. Use binoculars for a truly amazing view!
Venus is the brightest planet. Through February it climbs higher in our western sky each evening, becoming even brighter. Venus is currently moving out from beyond the sun and getting closer to Earth. However, Mars is now far away from Earth, and it’s getting farther away each day. From our perspective, Mars will pass behind the sun in mid June.
From February 13 through February 20, Venus and Mars appear to draw nearer to each other, reaching their closest point on February 21. Then they will be separated by only half of one degree, the apparent diameter of a full Moon.
On February 20, try comparing the brightness, size, and distance of Venus, Mars, and the Moon. The Moon, 2,160 miles in diameter, will be near perigee, only 222,000 miles distant. But, Venus, slightly smaller than Earth at 7,520 miles in diameter, will be 132 million miles away from us, almost 600 times as far away as the Moon! And, fainter Mars, 4,212 miles in diameter, will be 205 million miles distant.
If you have binoculars or a small telescope, you can resolve craters on the nearby Moon easily, even at low magnification. But, you’ll need a good telescope and magnifications of at least 50x to resolve the slightly gibbous phase of Venus. For Mars, you’ll need magnifications greater than 100x to see its tiny orange disk.
Western Slope Skies is produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written & recorded by Art Trevena.