Odyssey -- for adventures in science!

The Super Jupiter / Venus / Moon Sky Show!

by Jack Horkheimer & Stephen James O’Meara


As most of you viewers know, during the last week of April and the first two weeks of May all five of the brightest naked-eye planets were lined up like pearls on a string for the best viewing in two decades. Although two of the five planets are now gone, and a third is extremely dim, during June you will be able to watch the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, continue their great planet sky show, with the second week in June being super special when the crescent moon joins them.

Here’s what you do. On June first, one hour after sunset, face west-northwest. You will immediately see two brilliant stars! These are Jupiter and Venus, with Venus being the brighter of the two. Above them are the much fainter stars Pollux and Castor. For the last month, the two planets have been moving ever closer. If you had measured the distance between Jupiter and Venus on May 1st, they would have been 34 degrees apart which means we could have fit 68 full moons side by side between them. But as each night passed, the distance between them steadily shrank. Now, on June 1st, the two planets will have closed to within about 22 degrees of each other. Not only that, as we see them above the horizon, they will be side by side.

But keep watching, because on Monday June 3rd they will be changing places in the sky once again. They will also be at their very closest, little more than 1 1/2 degrees apart which means we can now fit little more than 3 full moons between them. Wow!

Now what we’re seeing becomes even more spectacular if you consider that 8,000-mile-wide Venus is the brightest of the visible planets and 88,000-mile-wide Jupiter, the 2nd brightest. And while Venus is 11 light-minutes (119 million miles) from Earth this evening, Jupiter is almost five times farther at 50 light-minutes (561 million miles). For an even more dramatic visual affect, consider Pollux and Castor, distant by 34 and 52 light-years, respectively 200 trillion and 305 trillion miles!

Now you can watch Venus and Jupiter as they separate from each other and put more distance between each other from night to night. Tuesday, June 4th, Wednesday, June 5th, Thursday, the 6th, and by Friday the 7th Venus and Jupiter have separated by a full 5 degrees which means we now could line up 10 full moons between them. But the real fun begins next Tuesday, June 11th because if you go out 30 minutes after sunset you just may be able to see an extremely slender sliver of a crescent moon hovering just below Mars with the moon, Mars, Jupiter and Venus all in a straight line. Even better, 1 hour after sunset Wednesday, the 12th, an incredible crescent moon complete with earthshine, which is simply sunlight bouncing off the earth, then to the moon and back to earth again which makes the moon look like it has a dark full moon within its bright crescent, will be cuddled up right alongside Jupiter. Don’t miss this!

Then on Thursday, the 13th an absolutely spectacular moon also complete with earthshine will be parked right above Venus! Wow! And believe it or not, whereas Venus and Jupiter were only 5 degrees apart on the 8th, only 1 week later on the 13th, they will be twice as far apart, 10 degrees! So don’t feel too bad if you can’t see all 5 planets anymore because the Venus / Jupiter sky show is still pretty hot!


Since Venus and Jupiter are so bright, and since they are so close to the horizon shortly after sunset, anyone with a 35-mm camera can capture the dancing planets night after night on film. What a record to have to share with your friends and families!

All you need is a 35-mm camera that can be set to "B"(Bulb), a 50-mm lens, a sturdy tripod, and a shutter-release cable (which will allow you to keep the camera’s shutter open for any length of time). Of course you’ll also need film, and we suggest you load some fast film into the camera; ISO 400 speed film is perfect. Now, before you go outside, be sure to set the camera’s lens aperture to either f/2.8 or f/4, attach the camera to the tripod, and screw (or plug) in the camera’s cable release. Next, go outside, set the camera on level ground, and frame the bright planets in the viewfinder. Be sure to include, if possible, some foreground objects like a tree or houses, for reference. Now all you have to do is wind the film, press the cable release, and take an exposure.

We suggest you "bracket" the exposures. In other words, make a series of exposures from 15 seconds to 1 minute long, each being double the time of the previous one. Any exposures longer than about 50 seconds will also record the earth’s rotation – meaning that the stars (and planets) will trail across the film; so, instead of pinpoints of light, you will see lines of light. But that too can be an interesting effect on film. Using a Telephoto lens will effectively magnify the sky’s motion on the film, so that means shorter exposures are required to eliminate the trailing. A wide-angle lens will allow you to take longer exposures without trailing. When you’re done making the exposures, you can do one of two things: either put the camera away until the next night, when you can start the process all over again; or shoot pictures of whatever you want to finish off the roll, then take the film to an hour-photo lab and check out the results. If you did something wrong, you can fix it before you try again.

Good luck!


Copyright © 2002 Cobblestone Publishing