On Monday morning, October 26, Venus will be at its greatest elongation west, the farthest it can get from the sun as seen from Earth.
Venus has been dominating the morning sky for the last two months, and reaches its greatest angular separation from the sun on the 26th: 46 degrees west of the sun. Remember, directions in the sky are the reverse of directions on the surface of the Earth because we are looking outward rather than inward, so west is to the right in the sky if you live in the northern hemisphere.
The inner planets, Mercury and Venus, never stray far from the sun in Earth’s sky. Mercury was at greatest elongation west, 18 degrees from the sun, last Friday, October 16, and is now moving back towards the sun. Venus is still moving away from the sun, but will pause and reverse directions on the 26th. Mars and Jupiter, with orbits outside that of Earth, both appear to be moving steadily westward relative to the sun.
As a result, Venus and Jupiter will pass very close to each other on the 26th, within 1.1 degrees.
Venus is by far the brightest of the two, at magnitude –4.6, while Jupiter is nearly 3 magnitudes fainter at magnitude –1.8. Mars, which is also nearby in the sky, comes a distant third in brightness at magnitude +1.7, more than 3 magnitudes fainter than Jupiter and 6 magnitudes fainter than Venus.
This close conjunction of Venus, Jupiter, and Mars is best observed with the naked eye or binoculars. In a telescope, Venus will appear as a perfect miniature quarter moon, because at greatest elongation it is lit by the sun exactly from its left side. It is 24 arc seconds in diameter, slightly smaller than Jupiter at 33 arc seconds, but much larger than Mars at 4 arc seconds.
Venus appears brightest because it is both close to the sun and close to Earth. Jupiter is much larger in actual diameter, but is far from the sun so only lit dimly. Mars, in between in distance from the sun and small in size, is currently very far from Earth, so appears even dimmer.
To put them in perspective, even though grouped close together in our sky, the three planets are at vastly different distances. Venus is closest at 0.69 astronomical units, Mars next at 2.2 a.u., and Jupiter farthest at 6.0 a.u., nearly ten times farther than Venus. An astronomical unit is the average distance between Earth and the sun.
Many photographers have been taking advantage of the close approach of these three planets to photograph them in the dawn sky, though the different brightnesses present a challenge in exposure. As always, we welcome your pictures of this beautiful event.