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Stargazers delight in rare alignment of Venus, Jupiter, waxing moon

Mike Campbell
The sun rises over the Chugach range on the 2011 winter solstice. Pioneer Peak is on the left.
Stephen Nowers photo
The December 2011 lunar eclipse as seen from the Healy, Alaska, area.
Robert Lype photo
Clear skies over southcentral Alaska on Saturday morning allowed for great viewing of the lunar eclipse.
Stephen Nowers photo
The northern lights blaze over the Kuskokwim River near McGrath on Wednesday night.
Stephen Nowers photo
A composite image of the December 2010 lunar eclipse
Stephen Nowers photo
The partially eclipsed moon sets behind Alaska's Talkeetna Mountains at 9:53 a.m. on Dec. 31, 2009.
Stephen Nowers photo
The nearly full moon rises over Pioneer Peak
Stephen Nowers photo

Amateur Alaska astronomers and regular old stargazers, prepare to be dazzled.

Look west not long after sunset to see a waxing crescent moon and Jupiter beside one another in the gathering twilight -- with Venus, the sky’s brightest planet, nearby.

“It is unusual, so it’s a neat thing to get out and see -- especially in Alaska, where it’s often either too cold or too cloudy or too much daylight,” said Katherine East of the Chugach Star Gazer Society, who recommended peering west as soon as the sky becomes dark enough.

Another treat is in the neighborhood, too. The Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters, is above Venus and visible with the naked eye.

Tonight’s celestial alignment is similar to what happened Feb. 25-26, but typically Venus and Jupiter have a conjunction like this only every couple of decades, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Venus, just one day away from being farthest from the sun on its orbit, is particularly high in the sky and visible for quite a while before setting. It’s also particularly bright, and the National Weather Service forecast calls for clear skies early this evening.

Magnificent pairings

“When you get a configuration like this, people who don’t normally look up above the horizon find that their eyeballs are being hijacked,” Alan MacRobert, senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, told the Washington Post. "These pairings will be magnificent in the evening and early night, and they're also ideal opportunities to spot these planets -- the two brightest -- even before the Sun sets."

Using binoculars, you may see that the dark side of the lunar surface is softly aglow, illuminated by what’s called earthshine -- sunlight reflecting from Earth back to the moon. Binoculars also let you see many more stars in the Pleiades star cluster than the six typically visible with unaided eyes.

Train the binoculars or your telescope on Jupiter, too.

“One of the biggest treats in sky watching is observing Jupiter’s four major moons,” according to the website EarthSky. “They’re quite visible in a modest, backyard telescope, but with good binoculars you should be able to glimpse a moon or two looking like a little “star” near the larger and brighter planet. In their outward order from Jupiter, these moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. They quickly move around Jupiter, changing place from night to night. If you wish to know which moon is which for any time and date, consult this handy almanac.”

Where to see it?

So bundle up, grab a chaise lounge, a Thermos of hot chocolate, and settle in for some skywatching. Monday and Tuesday will also work if skies are clear.  

East of the Chugach Star Gazers said even a small, inexpensive telescope helps a great deal. For the best views, she recommends heading up Arctic Valley Road or to the Campbell Creek Science Center to get away from city lights.

And if that’s not enough? You can find Mars in the eastern sky, too. "Mars will become extremely noticeable in our sky in March -- more noticeable than it’s been for the last two years," according to EarthSky. "Very exciting. Mars is now the fourth-brightest 'star' in the nighttime sky, after the planets Venus and Jupiter, and the star Sirius, the brightest true star of the nighttime sky."

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell@alaskadispatch.com