venus mercury

- by John Hlynialuk

Not being a student of ancient history, I will not venture a guess as to which of the classical gods or goddesses would top the list of favourites in a public poll. I know that many of my students would probably vote for Pluto, not because of his role as ruler of the underworld but because they see Disney's personable pooch with the floppy ears. And judging by some licence plates reading "Pluto is not a Dwarf" that appeared after that planet was demoted to dwarf planet-hood, there are probably some adults who would vote for Pluto as well.

But in my estimation, only two gods really stand out from the Olympian crowd, -the goddess of love and beauty, Venus and her opposite, the god of war, Mars. The ancients got it right when they personified these two aspects of our nature. Our cultural history in general often centres around these two themes, -love and war. The choice of which to pick for this column was not hard: -the Valentine's day glow is still with us, and Venus is due to make an appearance in our sky, so this "star-struck astronomer" will go with the former over the latter -an easy choice.

If you agree with me that there is nothing like a beautiful night time sky sparkled with stars and planets, then circle the first week of March on your calendar. Venus will be performing her duties as the goddess of love and beauty above the western horizon just after sunset. As the brightest planet in the sky, she often adds charm to a sunset as an Evening Star in the west or thrills early-risers as a Morning Star rising before the Sun in the east. But hold on one minute: if you see two Evening Stars after sunset that week in March, your eyes will not be deceiving you. A second planet, about one-third as bright as Venus, will be very noticeable for several days right beside her.

As you can see on the sky map provided here, Mercury will be following a path beside Venus at the start of the month and the two gradually separate as March progresses. Note how much farther Mercury has moved compared to Venus in the 8-day interval shown on the map. It is no wonder that the ancients associated this planet with the speedy messenger of the gods, -Mercury really gets around on those winged sandals. (The connection to Mercury appears in many places, from florists' flower delivery service, on automobiles and even the space program that launched the first Americans into Earth orbit was called Mercury. There is even an element named after him, one originally called "quicksilver".)

Both Venus and Mercury will climb higher into the western sky until Mar 18 or so, when Mercury "rounds the corner" along its orbit and starts back towards the Sun. In early April, Mercury will slip between us and the Sun and later in April re-appear as a morning planet, -an alternate Morning Star.

Meanwhile the slower-moving Venus will remain beautiful in the western sky as the sole Evening Star from March until late fall. There is an especially nice grouping on March 15 of Venus, Mercury and the thin crescent Moon. Then again on April 17, Venus and crescent Moon will be near the Pleiades Cluster, or the Seven Sisters. Venus near a thin crescent Moon remains my all-time favourite heavenly sight (with only one exception, a solar eclipse, but that is much rarer).

The closest approach of Venus and Mercury (technically called an appulse) occurs the evening of March 3. The separation that night will be about 1 degree, -if you hold a pencil at arm's length, it will just fit between the two planets. (I worked it out, my arm is 65 cm long and the pencil is 7 mm thick, giving an angle of 0.6 degrees, -who says high school trig is not useful?)

March 3 just happens to be a Saturday and if it is clear that evening you can be sure there will be observers from the Bluewater Astronomy Club viewing from the Friends of Sauble Beach Lookout (the corner of 6th St and Lakeshore Blvd). Various optical devices will be available and you are most welcome to join us at sunset for a look through binoculars and telescopes. This pair of lovely planets will definitely be the "stars of the show" and a nice bonus to the always spectacular sunsets over Lake Huron.

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