Ephemeral moments with two planets, the moon, and the sun

A little ephemeral moment will play out over the evenings of 21 and 22 May: the two innermost planets — Mercury and Venus — will be close together on the western horizon.

Mercury and Venus, 21-22 May 2020Image: EarthSky

Venus (which, as you may have noticed, has been spectacularly bright recently) will come into view about 20 minutes after sunset; Mercury (which is always a bit challenging to see) should appear about half an hour later.

The evening show will continue into the weekend, when the two planets will be joined by a thin crescent moon.

Mercury, Venus and the moon: 23-24 May 2020Image: EarthSky

Looking ahead, in four weeks’ time — when the moon completes its lunar cycle — there will be another ephemeral moment. The new moon of 21 June will line up perfectly with the sun and produce an annular solar eclipse.

An annular eclipse occurs when the moon is too far from the earth (and, therefore, too small) to cover the sun completely. Instead, the sun appears as a dazzling ‘ring of fire’ around the moon (annular means ring-shaped).

Annularity will be visible along a narrow path — indicated by the VERY thin central line in the map below — that runs from central Africa to the western Pacific. A partial eclipse will be visible across other parts of Africa and Asia (indicated by the shaded areas below).

Annular eclipse map, 21 June 2020Image: timeanddate.com

Once again, I’ll be joining the team at timeanddate.com to provide live coverage of this event.

Time and Date livestream

Needless to say, things will be a bit different to our usual live coverage! The current restrictions on travel mean we’ve had to cancel our plan to send the timeanddate.com mobile observatory to Oman. (We’re also waiting to see what the effect of covid-19 will be on our coverage of the total solar eclipse on 14 December; we’re hoping to broadcast this live from Piedra del Águila, in the Patagonia region of Argentina.)

NEVER look at the sun with the naked eye. Even if the sun is 99% covered by the moon, the remaining sunlight is extremely bright and can cause permanent damage to the eye. (The only time it is safe to view a solar eclipse with the naked eye is during the few short minutes or seconds of totality during a total eclipse, when the sun is completely covered — never during a partial eclipse or annular eclipse.)

Published by Graham Jones

Astrophysicist and language teacher