Venus Slip-Slides Away – Catch it While You Can!

I put down down the snow shovel to give my back a rest yesterday evening and couldn’t believe what I saw. Or didn’t see. Where was Venus? I looked to the south above the tree line and the goddess was gone! Sweeping my gaze to the right I found her again much closer to the western horizon point and also much lower.

As Venus revolves around the sun interior to Earth’s orbit, we see it pass through phases just like the moon. Tonight it’s still to the east of the sun (left side) and visible in the evening sky. On Jan. 11 it passes through conjunction and then appears on the other side of the sun in the morning sky. Illustration: Bob King

As 2013 gives way to the new year, Venus winds up its evening presentation as it prepares to transition to the morning sky. Catch it while you can. Each passing night sees the planet dropping ever closer to the horizon as its apparent distance from the sun shrinks.  On January 11 it will pass through inferior conjunction as it glides between Earth and sun. Come the 12th, Venus nudges into the dawn sky – don’t expect to see it with the naked eye until around midmonth, when it’s far enough from the sun to bust through the twilight glare.

Phases of Venus during 2004 photographed through a telescope. When very close to inferior conjunction (bottom right) the crescent is seen to extend fully around the planet. Credit: Statis Kalyva / Wikipedia

Though the planet is departing, don’t let it disappear without at least a glance through binoculars. As conjunction approaches, Venus gets as close (and as large) as it can get to Earth and displays a most attractive crescent phase. Even 7x binoculars will show its thinning sickle shortly at dusk. Tonight (Dec. 27) Venus measures nearly 1 arc minute in diameter or  1/30 the width of the full moon and shines brightly at magnitude -4.5.

Venus is only about 12 degrees high in the southwestern sky some 20 minutes after sunset this evening Dec. 27. Stellarium

As the planet drops ever lower, the crescent grows both larger and thinner. A few days before conjunction, a telescope will show it extending beyond the usual 180-degree arc as sunlight beaming from behind Venus is scattered by the planet’s thick cloudy atmosphere.

When the air is transparent and seeing steady, amateur astronomers have photographed and observed the crescent wrapping a full 360 degrees around the planet’s disk – a sight quite unlike anything else in the sky.

Before Venus departs the evening sky, watch for it to pair up with a very thin crescent moon shortly after sunset on Jan. 2, 2014. Stellarium

In the coming week, watch for Venus starting about 15 minutes after sunset low in the southwestern sky. With each day, the planet becomes slightly less conspicuous as it competes against the twilight glow.

After final farewells late next week, we’ll look forward in the new year to welcoming the goddess in her new guise as morning star.

 

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

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