April 2022 Planetary Conjunctions
March 30, 2022
Set your alarm clocks and mark your calendars! Two spectacular planetary conjunctions—the first involving Mars and Saturn and the second involving Venus and Jupiter—will grace the early morning skies during April.
Both conjunctions be well worth getting up early to see. These planets will appear very close to one another and look like double planets. You may recall the "Great Conjunction" pairing of gas giants Jupiter and Saturn back on December 21, 2020. This celestial event made headline news because the two largest planets almost appeared to merge when observed with the naked eye. While April's planetary conjunctions won't surpass that event, they will be close enough to capture any skygazer's attention. Read on if you're interested in viewing April's conjunctions and learning more about them.
What are Conjunctions?
Let's look back to ancient times when early astronomers were trying to understand the universe and its complex set of motions. They noticed some "stars" were distinguishable from fixed stars and they appeared to roam the night sky over time, rather than rotating around the celestial pole. They called anything that moved in this way a planet, derived from the Greek word planetes, for wanderer. Today, we know that these visible planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn orbit the Sun and follow the same plane in the night sky called the ecliptic.
Occasionally, two or more planets appear to meet or pass each other in the sky. These gatherings are called planetary conjunctions. The amount of separation between the planets varies from conjunction to conjunction. Most separations are between 0.5° to 1.3° (approximately 1 to 2.5 times the width of the Full Moon as seen from Earth).
Planetary conjunctions make it seem like the celestial objects are closing in on each other, but this is just an optical illusion. The truth is planets are millions of miles apart. Our vantage point on Earth fools us into believing that the planets involved in conjunctions are much closer to each other than they really are.
The "Great Conjunction" of Jupiter and Saturn in 2020 was a remarkable sight, as the two giant planets were separated by a mere 0.1° at their closest point. However, even though they appeared "together" in the sky, the illustration below shows just how far apart Jupiter and Saturn were from each other during conjunction.
Conjunctions are not only limited to planets. Sometimes conjunctions include the Moon, bright stars, asteroids, and even the Sun! The Moon is in conjunction with the Sun each month during New Moon when it passes between the Earth and the Sun. When an inner or outer planet moves close and positions itself on the far side of the Sun, as seen from Earth, it is called a superior conjunction. When an inner planet such as Mercury and Venus is positioned between Earth and the Sun, they are at inferior conjunction. When planets come too close to the Sun, they become extremely dangerous to view with your naked eyes, binoculars, or through a telescope. The Sun's overwhelmingly bright glare can permanently blind you. Never attempt to view these types of conjunctions.
April 4-5, 2022 – Conjunction of Mars & Saturn
The first of two planetary conjunctions occurring this April takes place on the morning of April 4 and 5, 2022, at 12:30 UTC. Observers with a clear view of the east-southeastern sky about an hour before sunrise will be treated to a tight pairing of the red planet, Mars, and the ringed planet, Saturn. On April 4, the pair will appear next to each other—separated by just 0.4°. In fact, the objects may appear as a single point of light to your naked eyes.
Interestingly, reddish Mars and yellow/brownish Saturn will appear to be nearly the same magnitude (Mars +1.0, Saturn +0.9), even though Saturn is millions of miles away from Mars. As a bonus, Venus will be nearby, just 7° away to the east and shining brilliantly at magnitude -4.2 in the constellation Aquarius. By 6:00 am, Jupiter will have crested the horizon and will disappear from view as the sky quickly brightens with the impending sunrise.
On the morning of April 5, Mars and Saturn will still be about 0.4° away from each other, but their positions in the sky will have noticeably changed. You should be able to spot the change while observing the two planets through binoculars or a telescope. Look for Mars slightly below and to the left of Saturn about an hour before sunrise. Mars will begin to distance itself from Saturn during the following consecutive mornings, but this is sure to be a beautiful pairing while it lasts.
April 27-30, 2022 – Conjunction of Venus, Jupiter & the Moon
April's second big planetary conjunction takes place in the early morning hours of April 27 through April 30, 2022. On April 27 at 12:10 UTC, a very thin, waning crescent Moon, 12% illuminated, will be seen below Venus and Jupiter in the eastern sky, forming a striking, triangular conjunction. The faint planet Neptune, magnitude 7.9, will be less than 1' from Venus, which you might want to locate as an additional observing challenge. Continue to watch Venus and Jupiter on April 28 and 29 as they move closer and closer together. However, the Moon will quickly descend towards the eastern horizon and no longer be a part of this conjunction.
On April 30, the two brightest planets in the Solar System, Jupiter and Venus, will be in very tight conjunction and appear side by side like a "double planet," separated by 0.2° and shining brilliantly at magnitudes -2.1 and -4.1, respectively.
Look for the two planets in the constellation Pisces just above the eastern horizon before sunrise. Check your local sources for sunrise times for your location. This impressive conjunction will be close enough to fit both planets in the field of view of binoculars or a telescope. The best view will occur before dawn while the sky is still relatively dark. Use extreme caution if you wish to observe Jupiter and Venus at their closest approach during daylight hours at 18:42 UTC. Only attempt this if you are an experienced amateur astronomer. Take care not to accidentally aim your binoculars or telescope towards the Sun's direction.
Mid-April 2022 – The Planetary Parade
As a bonus viewing event starting about mid-April, check out the "Planetary Parade" of five planets. Jupiter, Neptune, Venus, Mars, and Saturn will form a line before dawn in the eastern morning sky. Although you won't be able to see Neptune without a telescope, the other planets will be an incredible sight to see with your naked eyes. The waning Moon will join the parade by April 25.
- Use an app like SkySafari and Celestron's SkyPortal (included with every Celestron telescope) to determine what time the planets rise and set in your location.
- A few days before the conjunction, scout your viewing location to know where the best clear and unobstructed views of the horizon are located.
- Set up early. If you use a computerized telescope, make sure it's already aligned and ready to go.
- Make sure you have various magnifications to choose from. Think about which eyepiece in your collection is ideal for framing both planets in the same field of view or viewing detail at higher powers.
- If you have access to binoculars or a spotting scope, use it! Any optical aide will enhance the planets for a more memorable viewing experience. Even a small 8x42 or 10x42 binocular will show Jupiter as a disk and reveal its four brightest moons! Unfortunately, the magnification will not be strong enough to reveal Saturn's rings. Be sure to use a tripod if one is available to help steady the view, or use a table, wall, or automobile hood/trunk to prop up your arms to help minimize any shaking.
- If no optical aide is available, use your unaided eyes and enjoy the view.
- Capture this historic moment with your camera! Close planetary conjunctions and the “Planetary Parade” will make great photo opportunities to share with your family and friends.
We are fortunate to witness natural phenomena like planetary conjunctions and planetary parades. These celestial events are beautiful, predictable, always on schedule, and never disappoint. April's planetary conjunctions are more than just wandering lights meeting up in the early morning sky. They are faraway worlds, millions of miles away from us, but remember, each has already been visited by spacecraft from Earth. Modern-day astronomers know more about them than ever before. So maybe the "stars" of April's planetary conjunctions are not so distant after all? Ancient astronomers would surely have been amazed. Enjoy the shows and clear skies to you all!
Other articles you might be interested in: Ultimate Guide to Observing the Universe