Look up

When ancient lovers meet: the best planet duo of 2016

A trio of planets, Jupiter (top), Venus (bottom left) and Mercury (bottom right) as seen from La Silla Observatory, Chile on May 26, 2013. Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO, CC BY-SA

A fantastic lineup of planets has been visible over the past few weeks. Glance upwards just after sunset and all five bright planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – the only planets that can be seen with the naked eye, can be found shining down upon us.

The spectacle can be seen until the end of August and it’s about to get even more interesting because Jupiter and Mars are on the move.

Razzle dazzle

Low to the western horizon, against the fading light of the setting sun, Venus, Mercury and Jupiter can be seen. At the start of August, Jupiter sat well above faint Mercury and bright Venus, but now Jupiter is dropping down to meet up with the two low-lying planets.

On the evening of August 26, Jupiter will sit just above Venus and on the following two nights (August 27 and 28) Jupiter will skim right past Venus.

The planets will seem to pass so closely, it’ll be hard to break them apart and they may appear as one in the evening sky. By August 29, the two will have separated, with Jupiter now sitting just below Venus.

Venus and Jupiter pair up in the western sky, as seen on August 27. Museum Victoria/stellarium

It’s always eye-catching to see Venus and Jupiter together in the sky, as they are the two brightest planets. Their brilliance reflects their ancient Roman names – Jupiter being the king of the gods and Venus the goddess of beauty.

From indigenous Australia, the Boorong who inhabited the region around Lake Tyrell in north-west Victoria, paired Venus and Jupiter together as husband and wife. Jupiter was named Ginabongbearp, a chief of the Nurrumbunguttias, the ancient spirits who once inhabited the Earth. His wife is Chargee Gnowee, which means sister of Gnowee, the sun.

Personally, I think it’s particularly lovely that Venus and the sun were known as sisters, since Venus never appears to stray very far from the sun. It is the planet that’s seen as the morning star in the east before sunrise or as the evening star in the west after sunset.

Meanwhile, Venus’ husband Ginabongbearp has an orbit that lies beyond Earth’s and therefore the planet is not so constrained. It can wander right across the sky, which means that the husband and wife spend much of their time apart, but when they do come together it’s a beautiful sight to see.

Flipping the triangle

Look straight up and almost overhead are Mars and Saturn, completing the set of five planets. Over the past few weeks, these two planets have formed a triangle with the red supergiant star Antares in the constellation of Scorpius.

Like Mars, Antares shines with a reddish colour but Antares has the twinkling light of a star, while Mars and Saturn shine with a much steadier glow.

Mars has been on the move and is about to pass directly between Antares and Saturn. On August 24, the three will form a straight line and if you keep watch over the following nights, you’ll see the point of the triangle flip as Mars moves from being on the left of Antares and Saturn to sitting on their right.

The triangle flips as Mars makes its move between Saturn and the red supergiant star Antares. Museum Victoria/stellarium

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 113,600 academics and researchers from 3,705 institutions.

Register now