Image: Jupiter, Venus and moon conjunction over Spain
Roberto Porto
Skywatcher Roberto Porto caught this amazing scene of the Jupiter, Venus and moon conjunction over a spinning carousel in Costa Adeje, Tenerife, Spain, on March 26, 2012.
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updated 4/23/2012 8:38:49 PM ET 2012-04-24T00:38:49

On Tuesday evening, skywatchers will be treated to yet another eye-catching celestial tableau as a lovely crescent moon slides past the brightest of all the planets: the dazzling Venus.

Venus continues to draw all eyes to the western sky after sunset. Observers have been watching the bright planet for many weeks, although it seems that a fairly large percentage is not quite sure exactly what they have been looking at. I take phone inquiries from the general public on behalf of New York's Hayden Planetarium and questions regarding Venus have increased noticeably in recent days. 

The typical inquiry goes something like this:

"I've been seeing this 'huge, white star' shining in the west after the sun has gone down for a number of nights. I suspect it might be a planet, but some have told me it might be a satellite … maybe even a space station. I would really appreciate if you could tell me what I've been looking at."

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Venus is so bright you can see it even in broad daylight, but you have to search just the right spot in a deep-blue sky. After nightfall at a really dark site, the planet can even cast shadows. In fact, Venus is so bright that in January 2011, an Air Canada pilot mistook the planet for another airplane and sent his passenger jet into an emergency dive to avoid a potential collision! [ Amazing Skywatching Photos of Venus and Jupiter ]

How to see Venus
Venus is the first star-like object to appear at dusk and about 45 minutes after sunset it is indeed truly dazzling. The planet is currently shining at its greatest brilliancy, a magnitude of 4.5 on the scale used by astronomers to measure the brightness of sky objects.

On this magnitude scale, the smaller the numbe,r the brighter the object so Venus' negative number of -4.5 makes it exceptionally dazzling.

Venus will remain just as bright for all practical purposes (within a tenth of a magnitude) right on through May 17. It only seems appropriate for a planet named for the goddess of love to be showiest in northern springtime, and brightest of all around the ancient fertility festival of May Day.

Crescent moon meets Venus
The moon-Venus get together on Tuesday will not be an exceptionally close one. In fact there will be a rather wide gap separating the two brightest objects of the night sky; they will appear be roughly 6 to 7 degrees apart, Venus appearing to loom high above and to the right of the skinny moon. (Your clenched fist held at arm’s length measures about 10 degrees, so the moon and Venus will be separated by about two-thirds of a fist.)

But while the moon and Venus will be far apart, they will likely attract the attention of even casual skywatchers who normally wouldn’t pay much attention to things going on up in the sky wherever it is reasonably clear.

The moon will be 12 percent illuminated and will be rather far from Earth, having just passed apogee — the farthest point in its orbit — on Sunday. When they appear together on Tuesday, the moon will be about 251,000 miles away. Nonetheless, this is still much closer than Venus, which at that same time will be nearly 181 times more distant.  

Venus takes a dip
Bright as Venus may be, it has also begun its plunge down the sky toward the sun.

Right now, the planet remains up for two hours after it fully gets dark. But by May 21, Venus will be setting prior to the end of evening twilight and just ten days later it will be setting less than 45 minutes after sunset.

What is happening in space is that Venus is "rounding the bend" on the near side of its orbit to us. This puts it ever closer to the sun-Earth line and causes the planet's outline to loom bigger while the sunlit part facing our way grows ever thinner. 

Keep in mind that this stupendously bright evening star will continue "falling" until it passes directly between the sun and Earth on June 5 in the 2012 Venus Transit — the last such transit of Venus until the year 2117.  

If you snap an amazing photo of Venus and the moon, or any other skywatching target, and you'd like to share it for a possible story or gallery, please contact managing editor Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com.

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, New York.

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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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