Tonight is a very special night. Three celestial bodies clustered together in the sky, signifying a rare conjunction between the Moon, Venus and Jupiter. If you missed it, you’ll have to wait five years until the natural satellite of the Earth and two planets align in a similar pattern again in 2013.
Having been a frustrated astronomer for many years, I decided to get outside to investigate the conjunction over California for myself. Sure enough, from dusk, I could see a bright, thin crescent Moon with two very bright dots to the right and below in the southwest. The same scene has been repeated across many nations, but from my perspective I was able to capture the moment with some basic equipment and a very steady hand (plus some folded business cards)…
If you’ve been listening to my weekly radio show, Astroengine Live, you may have noticed my fascination with practical astronomy (I really need to make that telescope purchase soon). Being an astrophysicist, I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s better to know how a star works than just to see how pretty it is. Obviously I know the importance of astronomy, but I’ve never had the urge to get outside and see the cosmos with my own eyes (apart from the occasional meteor shower).
My previous forays into the amateur astronomy world have resulted in injury, shattered telescope lenses and fuzzy photos of the Moon. In fact, the only successful “astronomy” campaign I ever experienced was back in 2002 on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard when I let someone else record an all-sky video of the magnificent aurora shimmering overhead during a substorm (I was, naturally, sitting back enjoying a hot cup of Earl Gray while trying to dry off my socks). Natural born astronomer, I’m not!
On that same trip I decided to pop outside for a short observation campaign of my own. Balancing my old Yashica SLR on a glove and a block of ice, setting the timer to capture the bright green auroral display in -20°C (-4°F), resulted in frostbite and a frozen mechanical timer of the camera. My beloved SLR was never the same again (if the 10 second timer is set, it times anything between two seconds and two minutes. Oh dear) and three of my fingertips are still numb.
But tonight, I had the California warmth to prevent frozen fingers and 5 megapixels of digital camera joy to make another attempt at capturing the rare conjunction of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter. Here are the results:
Not too shabby even if I do say so myself!
Although the JPEG compression is obvious, the results were pretty good considering I was using nothing more than my little Canon PowerShot SD450 pushed to its highest resolution (plus a top secret business card-folding method to construct a makeshift tripod). On closer inspection of the Moon, some lunar features can be seen with little ridges along the light-dark terminator. These are most likely the mountains and crater sides catching the sunlight.
So, what are we looking at here? First off, let’s get an idea about the distances of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter:
The moon will be only about 251,400 miles (403,900 km) from Earth, while Venus is nearly 371 times farther away, at 93.2 million miles (149.67 million km). Meanwhile, Jupiter is almost 2,150 times farther away than our natural satellite at 540.3 million miles (869.0 million km). — Space.com
As you can tell from the above paragraph, the Moon, Venus and Jupiter aren’t actually clustered together, they are simply lining up. From our perspective, we can see the Moon closest, then Venus and then Jupiter, farthest, but they cluster in a tight group with stars in the background when viewed from the Earth.
If you were really lucky, and viewing from Europe, you may have had the opportunity to see the Moon move in front of Venus. This is known as a lunar occultation of Venus. As reported by SpaceWeather.com, “En route to last night’s Great Conjunction, the Moon ran right over Venus. The event, which astronomers call a “lunar occultation,” happened directly over Europe.”
For a run-down of the spectacular view seen all over the world, check out SpaceWeather.com, where a huge collection of international pictures of the last Moon, Venus, Jupiter conjunction until the year 2013. Also, be sure to read some of the interesting facts behind this conjunction over at the Universe Today with Tammy Plotner.
I think I might have caught the astronomy bug after all, and that was just by using a standard digital camera. I can’t wait to get my new telescope…