Planetary alignment a treat for skywatchers

Looking skyward after sunset over the next few evenings may grant an interesting view as Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest planets, come unusually close together.

The planets will be at their closest on Tuesday evening, June 30. The gap will be small enough to be covered by a person’s little finger if held at arm’s length, said Chris Cooke, president of the Cayman Islands Astronomical Society.

Both planets should be visible at the same time through a small telescope, but the spectacle will also be visible to the naked eye, Mr. Cooke said. He also mentioned that there might be an illusion of a collision between the planets.

“Although the two planets will appear to almost crash into each other, this is in fact a line-of-sight effect,” he said. “The planets are lining up in something astronomers call a conjunction.”

“Jupiter will be the pinkish planet slightly higher up, and Venus will be the bright white one,” he added.

Explaining Venus’ brighter nature, Mr. Cooke said, “Venus orbits the Sun closer to the Sun than the Earth and its white cloud reflects a lot of this sunlight. It’s about 50 million miles from the Earth at the moment, which is close in astronomical terms. In contrast, Jupiter orbits the Sun a long way out from the Earth’s orbit – at around 600 million miles from Earth.”

The event itself happens about every three years, making it relatively common, Mr. Cooke said, however, the conjunction is still one that will be interesting to observe. “Although it is not a rare event, the gap between the two planets will be quite small in comparison to previous occurrences,” he said.

While he is an astronomer and not an astrologer, Mr. Cooke also explained that the event has had connections to astrology. “It’s been suggested that one of the possibilities for the Star of Bethlehem may have been a conjunction since Jupiter can be interpreted as another word for Jove (the king of gods) and Venus is associated in Roman Mythology as ‘the mother of the people,’” he said.

Members of the Cayman Islands Astronomical Society will be at Sunset House on South Church Street Tuesday evening after sunset to watch the event, and are encouraging members of the public who want a telescope-view of the planets to join them.

For more information, contact Chris Cooke at 925-7657.