Image: Planet map
Sky & Telescope
This sky chart shows how four planets should appear in eastern skies a half-hour before sunrise on Wednesday, as seen from midnorthern latitudes.
updated 5/10/2011 5:29:05 PM ET 2011-05-10T21:29:05

The planet Venus is still a glittering "morning star," which this week is rising about one hour before sunrise.

About a half-hour before sunup, if you face due east, it can be seen hovering about 5 degrees above the horizon (your clenched fist held at arm's length measures 10 degrees in width, so Venus will stand roughly 'half a fist" above the brightening dawn horizon).

Although this is not very high, it still shines brilliantly at magnitude -3.8, and trying to keep track of it can be fun as it fades out in the growing light of day. On this astronomer's scale, smaller numbers represent brighter objects, with negative numbers reserved for the brightest of all.

Up until now, as early risers can attest, Venus has ruled the morning sky in solitary splendor.

But this week, the planet that ranks second to its brilliance will join it.

Jupiter joins in
That planet is Jupiter, which was a bright fixture in our evening sky until it passed through solar conjunction in April and transitioned into the morning sky. On Wednesday morning (May 11), the two brightest planets will converge to create a temporary alliance low in the eastern sky. The sky map of Jupiter and Venus here shows how they will appear Wednesday.

Venus will appear to pass 0.57 degrees — a trifle larger than the apparent width of the moon — below Jupiter. Those blessed with clear skies and a wide-open and unobstructed view of the eastern horizon will see this "double planet" shining through the bright morning twilight. Jupiter will appear noticeably dimmer than Venus — it's only about a fifth as bright, yet at magnitude -2.1, easily outshines any other star.

Remarkably, also in the immediate vicinity are two other planets, Mercury and Mars — part of a monthlong planetary summit meeting — but they're much fainter than Venus and Jupiter and more difficult to see.

Making a daytime sighting
You might even try looking for Venus and Jupiter during the daytime, but if you attempt this challenging observation, do not sweep for it with binoculars or a telescope, as serious damage to your eyes can result if the full blaze of the sun is accidentally encountered. 

Probably the best and safest technique is to point your telescope or binoculars (if you can mount them to a tripod) at a star having nearly the same declination as the dynamic duo the night before. Record the time, and then leave your telescope stationary to allow the rotation of the Earth to bring Venus and Jupiter into your telescope's view after sunrise on Wednesday. 

I would first recommend looking for the famous " Summer Triangle " composed of three first magnitude stars: Vega, Deneb and Altair. The Triangle first comes into view at midnight, low in the east-northeast sky, but will have climbed high up in the south-southeast part of the sky when dawn breaks about two hours before sunrise.

The part of the Triangle to concentrate on is around the star Altair, the lowest of the three stars. Altair is set apart from Vega and Deneb because it's flanked by two dimmer stars.  Above Altair is the third-magnitude star, Tarazed and below Altair is the fourth magnitude star, Alshain.

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Located about one-third the distance from Altair to Alshain is a fifth magnitude star, Xi Aquilae. If you live in a light polluted area, you'll need binoculars or a small telescope to find this star, but once you do, you will have found your target object that will be ideal for the purpose of helping you find Venus and Jupiter in the daytime.     

So, the night before:

  1. Center your telescope or binoculars on this star
  2. Note the exact time
  3. Do not touch the telescope or binoculars 

Jupiter and Venus will glide through the same field of view 5 hours and 38 minutes later. Of course, to get both in the same field of view, a low-power, wide-field eyepiece is preferable.  In addition, prefocusing your telescope will aid greatly in locating Jupiter and Venus by day.  It also will help if the sun is hidden behind some obstruction like the roof of a house so that you and your telescope are in shadow with no part of the scope sunlit.  Venus will appear as a tiny, gibbous-shaped disk, while dimmer Jupiter will appear as a full disk more than three times wider.

Once you know which part of the sky the two planets inhabit, if your sky is very clear and transparent, try to see if you can spy Venus with your unaided eye as a tiny white speck against the blue sky background.

As May progresses, Jupiter leaves Venus behind, rising earlier and climbing higher in the east each morning and appearing in a darker sky.   

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, N.Y.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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