August 2016 is a special month for backyard astronomy. Why? Because on almost any evening in August you can take a tour of the solar system—no telescope required.
For most of the month, the five brightest planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) have been splayed across the evening sky, with the Moon hopping from one to another and highlighting each one on a different night while acting as a helpful guide to novice sky watchers.
As August comes to a close, however, no guide is needed. Something so eye-catching and beautiful is going to happen, even the least experienced sky watcher can find it without help.
On August 27th, Venus and Jupiter will converge in the sunset sky only about 1/15th of a degree apart. If you hold a pencil at arm’s length, the eraser would cover both planets at once. Two bright planets so close together are practically impossible to miss. Just make sure you have an unobstructed view of the western horizon.
The converging planets might even look like they’re going to touch. They won’t. Venus is 144 million miles away, while Jupiter is more than 4 times farther. To the human eye, however, the distance between the two will appear breathtakingly small.
At closest approach, Venus and Jupiter easily fit within the same binocular or telescopic field of view. If you have a small telescope, take a look. Because Venus is an interior planet, we sometimes see it as a crescent, like the Moon. But not this time. On August 27th, Venus will be nearly full. You’ll see 93% of the cloudy disk of Venus, illuminated by the sun. You’ll also see the ruddy-brown cloud belts of Jupiter and, maybe, the giant planet’s largest moons. All of this will be visible, all at once, in the circumference of a single eyepiece.
Just remember, though, that a telescope is not required. Venus and Jupiter are bright enough to see with the naked eye even from light-polluted urban areas. Try to catch them about 30 minutes after sunset, as they will have set by the time the sky fades to completely black. The sight of two planets in conjunction surrounded by twilight blue is an extra-beautiful sight.
August 2016: If you didn’t love astronomy at the beginning of the month, you will love it by the end.