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Three Planets in the Night

Watch as Venus sinks toward the horizon in the coming weeks

The moon wanes before reaching new phase on the 20th, when its visage is bleached out by the glare of the sun. The moon is still there, right in front of our eyes — and right in front of the sun. For people on the west coast and beyond, this is a special new moon, as it crosses directly in front of the Sun, causing an annular solar eclipse. Alas,  here on the east coast, the sun will have set before this happens, so we’ll miss out.
    Just two weeks later, however, another body crosses in front of the sun, and this time it will be there for all to see. While not as spectacular as a lunar eclipse, a transit of Venus is far more rare. The next one won’t occur for 105 years. They come in pairs, eight years apart. Our last one was in June 2004, and there were no transits of Venus in the entire 20th century. Venus is large enough that you won’t need a telescope to see the transit, but you will definitely need eye protection. Order disposable eclipse and transit glasses, or even professional welders goggles, from Amazon.
    Sunset reveals Mars high in the south, shining a distinct orange beneath Leo the lion. Blue-white Regulus, the lion’s heart, shines less than 10 degrees to the west of Mars. A backward question mark of stars called the Sickle of Leo curves up from Regulus, outlining the lion’s chest, mane and head. The first-magnitude star is 77 light years away. It is roughly five times the size of our sun and more than 150 times as bright.
    Saturn, the only other planet visible to the unaided eye right now, appears high in the southeast at sunset and high in the south around midnight. Five degrees below golden Saturn is blue-white Spica, the ear of wheat in the outstretched arm of the goddess of the harvest.