Venus Meets Mars

In classical mythology, Venus, goddess of love, was married to Vulcan, the ugly smith-god, but she had an enduring love affair with Mars, the god of war. This is, perhaps, a metaphor for how human passions cause unrest and strife. It's no accident that Homer, greatest of the Greek poets, depicted Aphrodite and Ares (the Greek names for Venus and Ares) as vain, cowardly, and self-centered.

Use binoculars in bright twilight.
Venus and faint Mars are in conjunction, with Mercury looking on from below.
Be that as it may, the planets Venus and Mars are perennial favorites. And now they're paired close together above the west-southwestern horizon shortly after sunset. From September 9th to the 15th, the two planets will be less than 1½° apart, visible together in a telescope at 30× or less. And at their closest, on September 11th, they'll fit together easily even at high power.

Venus, at magnitude -3.8, currently outshines Mars (magnitude 1.7) by a factor of 150. So while Venus is visible to the unaided eye as soon as the Sun sets, you will probably need binoculars or a telescope to see Mars. And while you're there, don't forget to look for Mercury. Although it's lower in the sky than Mars, it's also much brighter (magnitude -0.9 to -0.7), making it much easier to see.

The best time to start looking for these planets is right after sunset. That will give you plenty of time to locate Venus and find the other two planets before they get too low for good telescopic views. To see the changing positions of the planets, view our 1-megabyte Quicktime movie. You can stop it at any frame and go backward or forward to the specific evening you're interested in.

Venus is getting ever higher and easier to view. See Sean Walker's article if you want to view or image this planet in detail. But Mars is sinking rapidly into the twilight glow, getting increasingly difficult both to locate and to view. This conjunction with Venus is your last good chance until Mars reappears from behind the Sun in April 2009.

I went out to view Venus, Mars, and Mercury last evening, September 8th. Venus was the only planet I could see without optical aid, but the other two showed up nicely in binoculars and my 70-mm refractor once I'd mentally adjusted for the huge discrepancy in brightness. All three planets showed tiny but gratifying disks at 60×. Although Venus's disk was biggest by far, it was also the hardest to view because of its overwhelming brightness.

Please post your own observations as comments to this blog.