FIU@Home: Discover the Mercury and Venus Conjunction

By Nicholas Ogle

Home is the first learning laboratory. This series brings opportunities to discover, explore and create to life-long learners everywhere. Through books, experiments, adventures and digital journeys, FIU@Home engages the whole family with fun, curated educational experiences. Don’t forget to share on social media and tag @FIUCASE.

venus mercury conjunction

NO SMILEY FACE MOON, NO PROBLEM
Light pollution can make observing stars in a large urban area tricky with the naked eye or even with binoculars. However, many planets appear brighter in the sky than more distant stars. Planets are bright enough to offer the opportunity to observe celestial bodies, even from  cities and  suburbs.

The Smiley Face Moon, a supposed alignment of Venus, Jupiter and a crescent moon into a smiley face on May 16, 2020 seems like the perfect backyard star gazing opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s a case of “fake news.”

A quick review of the sky charts shows these celestial bodies will not be in the same area of the night sky despite all the online hype. But not all is lost for amateur astronomers. According to FIU experts, there is another upcoming phenomenon that is observable without a telescope.

LOOK
Planets are constantly changing location in the sky due to their orbit around the sun. Certain planets sometimes appear in the evening sky and sometimes in the morning sky. This well-understood and predictable yearly dance has been observed for centuries.

“We are driven by a deep-rooted need to look up,” FIU astrophysicist, author and recording artist, Fiorella Terenzi said. “It was the sky that allowed humankind to survive. By looking up, we derived agriculture, navigation, time, art, music. Faraway dots of light are able to guide, comfort and inspire us.”

The end of May brings Venus and Mercury within a few degrees of one another in what astronomers call a conjunction. Venus’ proximity as the closest planet to Earth coupled with an atmosphere of thick clouds that reflect sunlight makes it one of the brightest observable celestial objects. Taking a backseat only to the sun and moon in brightness in the sky, it serves as a guide to find Mercury, which sits just below it and is fainter and thus much harder to see on its own.

Observing the conjunction in clear skies requires only a few simple steps. When observing the night sky, be sure to turn lights down as low as possible and allow your eyes to adapt to the dark. Find a clear western horizon and look for Venus just after sunset, low in the sky.

  1. Mark your calendar for May 21, 2020. Always be prepared for stargazing by using the Stocker AstroScience Center Clear Sky Chart.
  2. Find a clear view of the western horizon using the location of the setting sun as a guide. The conjunction is set to occur only 14° above the horizon, so an unobstructed or elevated location is best.
  3. Look for Venus. It should appear just above the horizon approximately 30 minutes or so after the sun sets and will be easy to spot with the naked eye.
  4. Wait 15 to 30 minutes for Mercury to become visible just below Venus. While not nearly as bright as Venus, there is a good chance it can still be viewed without any additional equipment.
  5. Having trouble spotting Mercury or want a better look? Aim binoculars at Venus. Both Venus and Mercury should be visible in the same field of view.

Fiorella Terenzi

LISTEN
Terenzi is one of a few members of the FIU Stocker AstroScience Center who also happens to be a musician. When looking for the Mercury and Venus conjunction, Terenzi recommends the following playlist:

  1. All The Stars – Kendrick Lamar, SZA
  2. Walking on the Moon – The Police
  3. Drops of Jupiter – Train
  4. Under the Stars – John Legend
  5. Contact – Daft Punk

Terenzi’s own Music from the Galaxies and fellow FIU astronomer James Webb’s Reaching for the Stars are also worth a listen.

SPREAD THE WORD – SHARE OBSERVATIONS
Help others be informed and avoid a sleepless night waiting for the Jupiter/Venus smiley face moon. Let them know there is a real conjunction that can be easily observed without any tools. Don’t forget to share pictures and observations on social media with @FIUCASE.

Looking to join a group that shares a passion for the universe? Southern Cross Astronomical Society brings the stars to everyone through their membership program and scholarships for FIU students.

The Stocker AstroScience Center gives stunning views of stars clusters, galaxies, planets, moons and more. Take a guided journey through celestial images captured by South Florida’s only research-grade telescope and find new ways to engage the cosmos. Follow FIU@Home on CASE News for more of the universe.