Watch Rotating Horns of Venus at Dawn

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Venus inferior conjunction
Venus just 10.5 hours before inferior conjunction on March 25th. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@Shahgazer)

Have you seen it yet? An old friend greeted us on an early morning run yesterday as we could easily spy brilliant Venus in the dawn, just three days after inferior conjunction this past Saturday on March 25th.

This was an especially wide pass, as the planet crossed just over eight degrees (that’s 16 Full Moon diameters!) north of the Sun. We once managed to see Venus with the unaided eye on the very day of inferior conjunction back in 1998 from the high northern latitudes of the Chena Flood Channel just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.

The planet was a slender 59.4” wide, 1% illuminated crescent during this past weekend’s passage, and the wide pass spurred many advanced imagers to hunt for the slim crescent in the daytime sky. Of course, such a feat is challenging near the dazzling daytime Sun. Safely blocking the Sun out of view and being able to precisely point your equipment is key in this endeavor. A deep blue, high contrast sky helps, as well. Still, many Universe Today readers rose to the challenge of chronicling the horns of the slender crescent Venus as they rotated ’round the limb and the nearby world moved once again from being a dusk to dawn object.

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A daily sequence showing the ‘Horns of Venus’ rotate as it approaches inferior conjunction. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@ShahGazer)

The orbit of Venus is tilted 3.4 degrees with respect to the Earth, otherwise, we’d get a transit of the planet like we did on June 5-6th, 2012 once about every 584 days, instead of having to wait again until next century on December 10th, 2117.

The joint NASA/European Space Agency’s SOlar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) mission also spied the planet this past weekend as it just grazed the 15 degree wide field of view of its Sun-observing LASCO C3 camera:

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The glow of Venus (arrowed) just barely bleeding over into the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera. Credit: SOHO/NASA/LASCO

Venus kicks off April as a 58” wide, 3% illuminated crescent and ends the month at 37” wide, fattening up to 28% illumination. On closest approach, the planet presents the largest apparent planetary disk possible as seen from the Earth. Can you see the horns? They’re readily readily apparent even in a low power pair of hunting binoculars. The coming week is a great time to try and see a crescent Venus… with the naked eye. Such an observation is notoriously difficult, and right on the edge of possibility for those with keen eyesight.

One problem for seasoned observers is that we know beforehand that (spoiler alert) that the Horns of Venus, like the Moon, always point away from the direction of the Sun.

True Story: a five year old girl at a public star party once asked me “why does that ‘star’ look like a tiny Moon” (!) This was prior to looking at the planet through a telescope. Children generally have sharper eyes than adults, as the lenses of our corneas wear down and yellow from ultraviolet light exposure over the years.

Still, there are tantalizing historical records that suggest that ancient cultures such as the Babylonians knew something of the true crescent nature of Venus in pre-telescopic times as well.

The Babylonian frieze of Kudurru Melishipak on display at the Louvre, depicting the Sun Moon and Venus. According to some interpretations, the goddess Ishtar (Venus) is also associated with a crescent symbol… possibly lending credence to the assertion that ancient Babylonian astronomers knew something of the phases of the planet from direct observation. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Image in the Public Domain.

Another fun challenge in the coming months is attempting to see Venus in the daytime. This is surprisingly easy, once you know exactly where to look for it. A nearby crescent Moon is handy, as occurs on April 23rd, May 22nd, and June 20th.

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Venus (arrowed) near the daytime Moon. Photo by author.

Strangely enough, the Moon is actually darker than dazzling Venus in terms of surface albedo. The ghostly daytime Moon is just larger and easier to spot. Many historical ‘UFO’ sightings such as a ‘dazzling light seen near the daytime Moon’ by the startled residents of Saint-Denis, France on the morning on January 13th, 1589 were, in fact, said brilliant planet.

The Moon near Venus on May 22nd. Credit: Stellarium.

Venus can appear startlingly bright to even a seasoned observer. We’ve seen the planet rise as a shimmering ember against a deep dark twilight sky from high northern latitudes. Air traffic controllers have tried in vain to ‘hail’ Venus on more than one occasion, and India once nearly traded shots with China along its northern border in 2012, mistaking a bright conjunction of Jupiter and Venus for spy drones.

The third brightest object in the sky behind the Sun and the Moon, Venus is even bright enough to cast a shadow as seen from a dark sky site, something that can be more readily recorded photographically.

Watch our nearest planetary neighbor long enough, and it will nearly repeat the same pattern for a given apparition. This is known as the eight year cycle of Venus, and stems from the fact that 13 Venusian orbits (8x 224.8 days) very nearly equals eight Earth years.

Follow Venus through the dawn in 2017, and it will eventually form a right triangle with the Earth and the Sun on June 3rd, reaching what is known as greatest elongation. This can vary from 47.2 to 45.4 degrees from the Sun, and this year reaches 45.9 degrees elongation in June. The planet then reaches half phase known as dichotomy around this date, though observed versus theoretical dichotomy can vary by three days. The cause of this phenomenon is thought to be the refraction of light in Venus’ dense atmosphere, coupled with observer bias due to the brilliance of Venus itself. When do you see it?

Also, keep an eye out for the ghostly glow on the night-side of Venus, known as Ashen Light. Long thought to be another trick of the eye, there’s good evidence to suggest that this long reported effect actually has a physical basis, though Venus has no large reflecting moon nearby… how could this be? The leading candidate is now thought to be air-glow radiating from the cooling nighttime side of the planet.

Cloud enshrouded Venus held on to its secrets, right up until the Space Age less than a century ago… some observers theorized that the nighttime glow on Venus was due to aurorae, volcanoes or even light pollution from Venusian cities (!). This also fueled spurious sightings of the alleged Venusian moon Neith right up through the 19th century.

Venus should also put in a showing 34 degrees west of the Sun shining at magnitude -4 during the August 21st, 2017 total solar eclipse. Follow that planet, as it makes a complex meet up with Mars, Mercury, and the Moon in late September of this year.

More to come!

-Read about planets, occultations, comets and more for the year in our 101 Astronomical Events for 2017, out as a free e-book from Universe Today.

Most Awesome Space Images of 2012

Each year, we are simply stunned by the beautiful images of space shot from a growing myriad of eyes that stare toward the heavens. This year was no different. From views out of the portholes of the International Space Station and landscapes of Vesta and Saturn to the faraway vistas from Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer sit back and stare in awe at the vastness of the cosmos with this look back at the most awesome space images of 2012

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity hams it up at “Rocknest” in Gale Crater on Mars. The car-sized rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on October 31st and November 1st to capture dozens of high-resolution snapshots. This self-portrait shows the surrounding terrain including Gale Crater’s northern wall and Mount Sharp in the background. Read more about Curiosity’s Incredible Self-Portrait.

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Image credit: NASA/SDO

first-contact-venus-transitA magnificent filament from a medium sized flare produced one of the best shows of 2012 for the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Some of the particles from this eruption smashed into Earth producing beautiful aurora. SDO also witnessed a celestial event that’s only happened seven times since the invention of the telescope; the transit of Venus across the Sun.

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Image credit: Red Bull Stratos

Daredevil Felix Baumgartner poised at the edge of space about to break the sound barrier during a skydive is one of my favorite images of 2012. Read all about the record-setting freefall.

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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA

This mosaic from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft stitches together the best views of the asteroid Vesta. Highlights of the image include the towering south pole mountain – twice as high as Earth’s Mount Everest – and a set of three craters known as the “snowman” in the upper left of the image. Read more about Dawn’s parting shots of Vesta.

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ESA Envisat MERIS

Released in 2012 but taken in 2011, ESA’s Envisat shows the amazing artwork that is Earth. This phytoplankton bloom swirls in the ocean currents creating a figure-8 pattern in the South Atlantic Ocean near the Falkland Islands. Read more.

Blue Marble

Image Credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring

City lights of AfricaA ‘Blue Marble’ image taken from NASA’s Suomi NPP Earth-observing satellite offers a snapshot of Earth’s surface on January 4, 2012. NASA released a night-time version called the ‘Black Marble’ in December 2012. The image at right features the threadlike connections of city lights across the eastern hemisphere. See more of the Black Marble images.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station used their lofty perch to take some awesome images of Earth in 2012.
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NASA ISS

Expedition 33 crew look at exhaust trails from the Soyuz rocket that blasted off from the Baikonour Cosmodrome in October heading toward a rendezvous with the ISS. Exhaust plumes curled in different directions due to winds blowing in different directions as the rocket ascended through various atmospheric layers.

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NASA ISS

Astronauts shot an image of delicate shining threads called polar mesospheric clouds as they zoomed across the Tibetan plateau in June 2012. Also known as noctilucent or night-shining clouds, this image is the first time astronauts caught the phenomenon from orbit.

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NASA ISS

Sea ice forms along the Pacific coastline of the Kamchatka Peninsula in this image from Expedition 30 in March 2012. Large circular eddys spin off from the southwestward flowing Kamchatka current. While the sea ice looks thin and delicate, the smallest features in this image are several meters across. North is to the left in the image.

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NASA ISS

The ISS was sailing over Nova Scotia when astronauts caught sunglint reflecting off the Great Lakes of North America. Featured in the image are New York’s Finger Lakes, Lake Ontario, Lake Huron and Lake Erie. Most of Canada is hidden under a blanket of clouds toward the curving horizon in this image.

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Image credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

The European Southern Observatory’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy, or VISTA, captured what may be one of the most stunning images of the planetary nebula called the Helix Nebula, or NGC 7293.

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Image credit: ESO/B. Bailleul

Thor’s Helmet Nebula, in Canis Major, was taken to celebrate the ESO’s 50th anniversary in October 2012. A bright massive star blew this colossal cosmic bubble in the surrounding nebula.

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Image credit: ESO/T. Preibisch

ESO’s Very Large Telescope captured a vast panorama full of exotic cosmic landscapes, glowing gas and new stars in this image of the Carina Nebula.

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NASA/ESA Hubble

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shot this most detailed view of the dusty core of Messier 82, or the Cigar Galaxy.

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NASA/ESA Hubble

Resembling an angel, the bi-polar star-forming region called Sharpless 2-106, or S106, blazes brightly in this image from NASA’s Hubble. Super hot gas, glowing blue in the image, contrasts with the cooler red-colored gas and dust.

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NASA, ESA, R. Ellis (Caltech), and the HUDF 2012 Team

Deep in this image – a tiny slice of sky taken with the Hubble – lie some of the most distant galaxies observed to date. The image shows the Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2012 and improves upon the previous Ultra Deep Field image.

If astronomy had its own Academy Awards, then this part of the Milky Way would have been the “Favorite Nebula” pick for 2011. Competing against 12,263 other slices of the sky, this got more votes from the 35,000 volunteers searching for cosmic bubbles

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Wisconsin

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has amassed a vast collection of infrared images. Spitzer can find beauty hidden in behind the densest dust clouds. This nebula is found in the constellation Scutum. I think it looks like a bumblebee.

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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The giant star Zeta Ophiuchi zips along so quickly that it creates a bow shock in the surrounding nebula. These gossamer ripples glow in infrared and can only be seen with Spitzer’s instruments.

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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft continues to dazzle with this detailed close-up of the vortex at Saturn’s north pole in this image taken in November 2012.

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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Nearly as dazzling as the images, the skill of Cassini imaging team at finding unique shots is impressive. The bright moon Enceladus sits before the rings with the larger moon Titan glowing dimly in the distance. Cassini took this image in April 2012 from a distance of about 600,000 miles (1 million kilometers) from Enceladus.

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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Taken by Cassini at the beginning of 2012, Saturn’s moon Tethys lies before the wide shadows cast onto Saturn.

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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Sunlight scatters through the edge of Titan’s atmosphere in this image from Cassini. At the bottom of the moon’s limb, a hint of the high clouds that form the south polar vortex on Titan can be seen.

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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A tour of Saturn wouldn’t be complete without a beauty shot of the planet’s sweeping rings and complex cloud systems. Dwarfed by Saturn, Mimas sits near Saturn in this image from Cassini.

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Image credit: NASA/Rebecca Roth

2012 is also known for some goodbyes. The three remaining shuttles were retired and sent to museums around the country. Space Shuttle Discovery, mounted atop a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier flies near the US Capitol on April 17, 2012 enroute to its final home at the National Air & Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

The ‘Bonus’ Full Moon of 2012

The Moon and Jupiter above the dishes in Canberra, Australia. Credit: Carlos Orue.

The full Moon today is considered a bonus for 2012, since it is the 13th full Moon of the year. But this full Moon has also been a bonus in the sense that we’re getting several nights in a row of nearly full Moons. According to Universe Today’s Phases of the Moon App, the face of the Moon on the night of the 25th was 96% illuminated; on the 26th it was 99% illuminated; the night of the 27th/morning of the 28th was the full Moon, (officially, the Moon was most full at 10:21 UTC (4:21 EST this morning), and tonight, the 28th, the face of the Moon is again 99% illuminated. And if you’re enjoying a wintery landscape like I currently am, the brilliance of the Moonlight on snow is bright enough to keep you awake at night.

Enjoy some great astrophotos submitted for photographers around the world of the bonus — and final — full Moon of 2012.

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The last full Moon of 2012 — the Full Cold Moon, as seen from the James C. Veen Observatory near Lowell, Michigan. Credit: Kevin on Flickr.

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The last full moon of the year as seen from the Middle Eastern Technical University Physics department in Ankara, Turkey. Credit: Nükleer Kedi

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Full Moon of December. Credit: Henna Khan

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Full Moon, December 27, 2012 from London, England. Credit: Sculptor Lil.

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The Third Day of Christmas Moon. Credit: Andrei Juravle

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Closeup of Tycho Crater on Dec. 23, 2012. Credit: Fred Locklear

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Closeup of the Moon on Dec. 26, 2012. Credit: César Cantú

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Astrophoto for December 21, 2012: Stars over the Temple of Quetzalcoatl

Templo de la Serpiente Emplumada / Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Credit: César Cantú. Click on the image for access to a larger version.

Our friend César Cantú sent us this image today, and it seemed perfect to share on the day where nothing apocalyptic happened. Hopefully, the day turned out for all our readers as only a chance to have a party and share a few jokes, to realize the specialness of those around you, or just to finish up your holiday preparations.

As someone once said, “Live long and prosper,” and as 2012 comes soon to a close, that is our wish to all of you.

(That, and please don’t believe any of those crazy doomsday prophesies anymore.)

Today’s Solstice Sun

This beautiful image from the Solar Dynamics Observatory provides a view of our Sun on the solstice (winter solstice for the northern hemisphere and summer solstice for the southern hemisphere,) at 11:12 UTC, December 21, 2012. No killer solar flares, no apocalypse, just pure beauty and the life-giving light and warmth from Old Sol.

Happy solstice to all!

Via @Camilla_SDO

NASA’s Final 2012 Doomsday Debunking Video (We Hope)


Despite countless articles published over the course of several years to the contrary, despite videos and interviews with some of the world’s most prominent and well-respected astronomers, despite new archaeological discoveries and well-established knowledge, despite the laws of physics, for crying out loud (and, curiously enough, even despite the fact that parts of the world are, at the time of this writing, already well within the supposed “doomsday” with nary a Nibiru in sight) many people are still wondering what will happen on the much-touted December 21, 2012, aka “doomsday” per the end of the 13th b’ak’tun of the Maya calendar (or something like that.) After all, if it’s trending on Twitter it must be important, right?

Well, yes and no. No because there’s not a shred of truth to the whole thing (except for the fact that there were Maya and they had a calendar) but yes because many people are actually very concerned about… well, I guess about the safety of the world. (Don’t believe me? Read this.) Which is in itself reasonable, I suppose. So in the nature of public outreach and the attempt to spread real information to combat the other kind, NASA’s has released yet one more video interview with astrophysicist David Morrison, director of the Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute. I don’t know if David could tell you how to replace a broken head gasket or perform an appendectomy, but when it comes to space he knows his stuff. So check out the video, be not alarmed, and pass it on to anyone you know who might still be feeling the b’ak’tun blues.

See you on the 22nd! (Still skeptical? Check out some other videos and links below.)

Read more: How Have the 2012 Doomsday Myths Become Part of Our Accepted Lexicon?

And here’s a “reality check” from JPL’s Don Yeomans, an expert on near-Earth objects and asteroids:

Read more: No Doom in 2012: Stop the Insanity!

So rest assured, the only astronomical event expected for the 21st is the winter solstice (summer in the south), which happens every year on every planet with an axial tilt with no ill effects (besides perhaps a sudden sinking realization that you’re nowhere near done with your holiday shopping.) Happy solstice!

The Truth About 2012: Killer Solar Flares Are a Physical Impossibility

NASA is trying to make sure that no one is taking the 2012 doomsday nonsense seriously, and just put out this video today detailing how a gigantic “killer solar flare” just ain’t gonna happen. Dr. Alex Young from the Goddard Space Flight Center explains how the Sun’s regular 11-year solar cycle is expected to peak in 2013 and 2014, not on December 21 of this year. Plus, this current solar cycle has been kind of a dud as far as wild activity goes, and scientists are not expecting the peak of this cycle to even be as strong as the previous one, which was rather mild.

Solar prominence in H alpha, with Earth scale model. Credit: John Brady.

Not to mention, Earth’s atmosphere keeps us well protected here on Earth. The only thing we do have to be concerned with is how solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can damage satellites and even impact the power grid on Earth; additionally astronauts in Space to have to be specially protected as they are outside of the protection of the atmosphere.

You can get more information in our detailed article “2012: No Killer Solar Flare.”

What Earth Looked like on 12/12/12

Earth, as seen by the GOES15 satellite on December 12, 2012. Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project/Dennis Chesters

Although we don’t subscribe to hokum like numerology or think that dates on a man-made calendar could have any sort of cosmic significance, there is something about a little symmetry. The GOES-15 satellite captured this image of Earth today, which is 12/12/12 on the Gregorian calendar, and even added a bonus of taking the image at 1200 UTC.

Too bad the GOES-12 spacecraft had some thruster problems and is currently in a standby mode.

Dennis Chesters, project scientist of NASA’s GOES Project at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center said this image does something significant, however: the fourth tropical cyclone in the southern Pacific Ocean. Newborn Tropical Storm Evan was born today, Dec. 12, 2012 at 1500 UTC (10 a.m. EST) and appears as a rounded area of clouds in the bottom left corner of the image. Tropical Storm Evan is about 145 nautical miles west of Pago Pago, American Samoa.

See a larger version of this image here.

Google’s 2012 Year in Review Includes Space Highlights

Even though this is a promotional video by Google, it is a great review of 2012, good and bad. And there’s a plethora of space-related events and people featured. Look for: Felix Baumgartner’s jump, SpaceX’s Dragon launch, the search for the Higgs Boson, space shuttles, Curiosity’s landing, Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Ray Bradbury, the International Space Station, solar eclipse, and more.

As the Very Short List folks said, this video is “also an inspired reflection of our collective hopes, dreams, fears, and desires.”