Venus Rules the Dusk Skies at Greatest Elongation

Venus at dusk
Venus at dusk
Venus, Mars, and the waxing crescent Moon at dusk from the evening of January 3rd, 2017. Image credit and copyright: Alan Dyer.

“What’s that bright light in the sky?” The planet Venus never fails to impress, and indeed makes even seasoned observers look twice at its unexpected brilliance. The third brightest natural object in the sky, Venus now rules the dusk, a fine sight for wintertime evening commuters. Venus reaches greatest elongation tomorrow, a excellent time to admire this dazzling but shrouded world of mystery.

Venus at greatest elongation

Only the two planets interior to Earth’s orbit – Mercury and Venus – can reach a point known as greatest elongation from the Sun. As the name suggests, this is simply the point at which either planet appears to be at its maximum angular distance from the Sun. Think of a big right triangle in space, with Venus or Mercury at the right angle vertex, and the Sun and Earth at the other two corners. High school geometry can come in handy!

Venus elongation
Venus at greatest elongation (planets and orbits not to scale). Credit: Dave Dickinson

This Thursday on January 12th Venus reaches a maximum of 47 degrees elongation from the Sun at 11:00 Universal Time (UT) / 6:00 AM Eastern Standard Time, shining at magnitude -4.4. The maximum/minimum elongation for Venus that can occur is 47.3 to 45.4 degrees respectively, and this week’s is the widest until 2025.

Here’s some key dates to watch out for:

Jan 12th: Venus passes less than a degree from Neptune.

Jan 14th: Venus reaches theoretical dichotomy?

Jan 14th: Venus passes 3′ from +3.7 the magnitude star Lambda Aquarii.

Jan 17th: Venus crosses the ecliptic plane northward.

Venus and Mars reach ‘quasi-conjunction’ in late January.

January 30th: Venus crosses the celestial equator northward.

January 31st: The Moon passes 4 degrees south of Venus, and the two also form a nice equilateral triangle with Mars on the same date.

Looking west on the evening of January 31st, 2017. Image credit: Stellarium.

February 17th: Venus reaches a maximum brilliancy of magnitude -4.6.

March 26th: Solar conjunction for Venus occurs eight degrees north of the Sun … it is possible to spy Venus at solar conjunction from high northern latitudes, just be sure to block out the Sun.

Through the telescope, Venus displays a tiny 24.4” size half phase right around greatest elongation. You could stack 74 Venuses across the diameter of tomorrow’s Full Moon. When does Venus look to reach an exact half phase to you? This point, known as theoretical dichotomy, is often off by just a few days. This is a curious observed phenomenon, first noted by German amateur astronomer Johann Schröter in 1793. The effect now bears his name. A result of atmospheric refraction along the day/terminator on Venus, or an optical illusion?

Gibbous Venus
Almost there… a waning gibbous Venus from the evening of January 5th, 2017. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@Shahgazer)

And hey, amateurs are now using ultraviolet filters to get actual detail on the cloud-tops of Venus… we like to use a variable polarizing filter to cut down the dazzling glare of Venus a bit at the eyepiece.

Also, keep an eye out for another strange phenomenon, known as the Ashen Light of Venus. Now,ashen light or Earthshine is readily apparent on dark side of the Moon, owing to the presence of a large sunlight reflector nearby, namely the Earth. Venus has no such large partner, though astronomers in the early age of telescopic astronomy claimed to have spied a moon of Venus, and even went as far as naming it Neith. An optical illusion? Or real evidence of Venusian sky glow on its nighttime side? After tomorrow, Venus will begin heading between the Earth and the Sun, becoming a slender crescent in the process. Solar conjunction occurs on March 25th, 2017. Venus sits just eight degrees north of the Sun on this date, and viewers in high Arctic latitudes might just be able to spy Venus above the horizon before sunrise on the day of solar conjunction. We performed a similar feat of visual athletics on the morning of January 16th, 1998 observing from North Pole, Alaska.

Venus as seen from Fairbanks, Alaska on the morning of solar conjunction, 2017. Image credit: Starry Night.

From there, Venus heads towards a fine dawn elongation on June 3rd, 2017. All of these events and more are detailed in our free e-book: 101 Astronomical Events for 2017.

Spying Venus in the Daytime

Did you know: you can actually see Venus in the daytime, if you know exactly where to look for it? A deep blue, high contrast sky is the key, and a nearby crescent Moon is handy in your daytime quest. Strange but true fact: Venus is actually brighter than the Moon per square arc second, with a shiny albedo of 70% versus the Moon’s paltry 12%. But Venus is tiny, and hard to spot against the blue daytime sky… until you catch sight of it.

The Moon passing Venus on January 31st, 2017 in the daytime sky. Image credit: Stellarium.

There’s another reason to brave the January cold for northern hemisphere residents: Venus can indeed cast a shadow if you look carefully for it. You’ll need to be away from any other light sources (including the Moon, which passes Full tomorrow as well with the first Full Moon of 2017, known as a Full Wolf Moon). And a high contrast surface such as freshly fallen snow can help… a short time exposure shot can even bring the shadow cast by Venus into focus.

If you follow Venus long enough, you’ll notice a pattern, as it visits very nearly the the same sky environs every eight years and traces out approximately the same path in the dawn and dusk sky. There’s a reason for this: 8 Earth years (8x 365.25 = 2922 days) very nearly equals 5 the synodic periods for Venus (2922/5=584 days, the number of days it takes Venus to return to roughly the same point with respect to the starry background, separate from its true orbit around the Sun of 225 days). For example, Venus last crossed the Pleiades star cluster in 2012, and will do so again in – you guessed it — in 2020. Unfortunately, this pattern isn’t precise, and Venus won’t also transit the Sun again in 2020 like it did in 2012. You’ll have to wait until one century from this year on December 10-11th, 2117 to see that celestial spectacle again….

Hopefully, we’ll have perfected that whole Futurama head-in-a-jar thing by then.

Comet U1 NEOWISE: A Possible Binocular Comet?

U1 NEOWISE
U1 NEOWISE
Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE on December 23rd as seen from Jauerling, Austria. Image credit: Michael Jäger.

Well, it looks like we’ll close out 2016 without a great ‘Comet of the Century.’ One of the final discoveries of the year did, however, grab our attention, and may present a challenging target through early 2017: Comet U1 NEOWISE.

Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is expected to reach maximum brightness during the second week on January. Discovered by the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) space observatory on its extended mission on October 21st, 2016, Comet U1 NEOWISE orbits the Sun on an undefined hyperbolic orbit that is perhaps millions on years long. This also means that this could be Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE’s first venture through the inner solar system. Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is set to break binocular +10th magnitude brightness this week, and may just top +6th magnitude (naked eye brightness) in mid-January near perihelion.

The orbit of Comet U1 NEOWISE. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Visibility prospects: At its brightest, Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE will pass through the constellations Ophiuchus to Serpens Cauda and Sagittarius, and is best visible in the dawn sky 12 degrees from the Sun at maximum brightness. This apparition favors the northern hemisphere. Perihelion for Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE occurs on January 13th, 2017 at 0.319 AU from the Sun, and the comet passed 0.709 AU from the Earth on December 13th.

This is the ninth comet discovered by the extended NEOWISE mission since 2014.

The pre-dawn view on the morning of December 28th. Image credit: Starry Night.

Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE ends 2016 and early January 2017 as a difficult early dawn target, sitting 25 degrees above the eastern horizon as seen from latitude 30 degrees north about 30 minutes before dawn. Things will get much more difficult from there, as the comet passes just 12 degrees from the Sun as seen from our Earthly vantage point during the final week of January. The comet sits 16 degrees from the Sun in the southern hemisphere constellation of Microscopium on the final day of January, though it is expected to shine at only +10th magnitude at this point, favoring observers in the southern hemisphere.

The time to try to catch a brief sight of Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is now. Recent discussions among comet observers suggest that the comet may be slowing down in terms of brightness, possibly as a prelude to a pre-perihelion breakup. Keep a eye on the Comet Observer’s database (COBS) for the latest in cometary action as reported and seen by actual observers in the field.

Finding C/2016 U1 NEOWISE will be a battle between spying an elusive fuzzy low-contrast coma against a brightening twilight sky. Sweep the suspect area with binoculars or a wide-field telescopic view if possible.

The path of Comet U1 NEOWISE through perihelion on January 13th. Credit: Starry Night.

Here are some key dates to watch out for in your quest:

December

25-Crosses in to Ophiuchus.

26-Passes near +3 mag Kappa Ophiuchi.

January

1-Crosses the celestial equator southward.

3-Passes near M14.

7-Passes near the +3 mag star Nu Ophiuchi.

8-Crosses into the constellation Serpens Cauda.

10-Passes near M16, the Eagle Nebula.

11-Passes near M17 the Omega Nebula, crosses the galactic equator southward.

12-Crosses into the constellation Sagittarius.

13-Passes near M25.

16-Crosses the ecliptic southward.

27-Crosses into the constellation Microscopium.

28-Passes near +4.8 mag star Alpha Microscopii.

February

1-May drop back below +10 magnitude.

C/2016 U1 NEOWISE (23.nov.2016) from Oleg Milantiev on Vimeo.

A rundown on comets in 2016, a look ahead at 2017

C/2016 U1 NEOWISE was one of 50 comets discovered in 2016. Notables for the year included C/2013 X1 PanSTARRS, 252/P LINEAR and C/2013 US10 Catalina. What comets are we keeping an eye on in 2017? Well, Comet 2/P Encke, 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS, C/2015 V2 Johnson are all expected to reach +10 magnitude brightness in the coming year… and Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková has already done so, a bit ahead of schedule. These are all broken down in our forthcoming guide to the top 101 Astronomical Events for 2017. Again, there’s no great naked eye comet on the horizon (yet), but that all could change… 2017 owes us one!

101 Astronomical Events for 2017: A Teaser

It’s that time of year again… time to look ahead at the top 101 astronomical events for the coming year.

And this year ’round, we finally took the plunge. After years of considering it, we took the next logical step in 2017 and expanded our yearly 101 Astronomical Events for the coming year into a full-fledged guide book, soon to be offered here for free download on Universe Today in the coming weeks. Hard to believe, we’ve been doing this look ahead in one form or another now since 2009.

This “blog post that takes six months to write” will be expanded into a full-fledged book. But the core idea is the same: the year in astronomy, distilled down into the very 101 best events worldwide. You will find the best occultations, bright comets, eclipses and much more. Each event will be interspersed with not only the ‘whens’ and ‘wheres,’ but fun facts, astronomical history, and heck, even a dash of astronomical poetry here and there.

It was our goal to take this beyond the realm of a simple almanac or Top 10 listicle, to something unique and special. Think of it as a cross between two classics we loved as a kid, Burnham’s Celestial Handbook and Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar, done up in as guide to the coming year in chronological format. Both references still reside on our desk, even in this age of digitization.

And we’ve incorporated reader feedback from over the years to make this forthcoming guide something special. Events will be laid out in chronological order, along with a quick-list for reference at the end. Each event is listed as a one- or two-page standalone entry, ready to be individually printed off as needed. We will also include 10 feature stories and true tales of astronomy. Some of these were  culled from the Universe Today archives, while others are new astronomical tales written just for the guide.

Great American Eclipse
Don’t miss 2017’s only total solar eclipse, crossing the United States! Image credit: Michael Zeiler/The Great American Eclipse.

The Best of the Best

Here’s a preview of some of the highlights for 2017:

-Solar cycle #24 begins to ebb in 2017. Are we heading towards yet another profound solar minimum?

-Brilliant Venus reaches greatest elongation in January and rules the dusk sky.

-45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova passes 0.08 AU from Earth on February 11th, its closest passage for the remainder of the century.

-An annular solar eclipse spanning Africa and South America occurs on February 26th.

A sample occultation map from the book. Image credit: Occult 4.1.2.
A sample occultation map from the book. Image credit: Occult 4.1.2.

-A fine occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon on March 5th for North America… plus more occultations of the star worldwide during each lunation.

-A total solar eclipse spanning the contiguous United States on August 21st.

-A complex grouping of Mercury, Venus, Mars and the Moon in mid-September.

-Saturn’s rings at their widest for the decade.

Getting wider... the changing the of Saturn's rings. Image credit and copyright: Andrew Symes (@FailedProtostar).
Getting wider… the changing face of Saturn’s rings. Image credit and copyright: Andrew Symes (@FailedProtostar).

-A fine occultation of Regulus for North America on October 15th, with  occultations of the star by the Moon during every lunation for 2017.

-Asteroid 335 Roberta occults a +3rd magnitude star for northern Australia…

And that’s just for starters. Entries also cover greatest elongations for the inner planets and oppositions for the outer worlds, the very best asteroid occultations of bright stars, along with a brief look ahead at 2018.

Get ready for another great year of skywatching!

And as another teaser, here’s a link to a Google Calendar download of said events, complied by Chris Becke (@BeckePhysics). Thanks Chris!

Occultation Palooza: The Moon Covers Aldebaran and More

Aldebaran

This week, we thought we’d try an experiment for tonight’s occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon. As mentioned, we’re expanding the yearly guide for astronomical events for the year in 2017. We’ve done this guide in various iterations since 2009, starting on Astroguyz and then over to Universe Today, and it has grown from a simple Top 10 list, to a full scale preview of what’s on tap for the following year.

You, the reader, have made this guide grow over the years, as we incorporate feedback we’ve received.

Anyhow, we thought we’d lay out this week’s main astro-event in a fashion similar to what we have planned for the guide: each of the top 101 events will have a one page entry (two pages for the top 10 events) with a related graphic, fun facts, etc.

So in guide format, tonight’s occultation of Aldebaran would break down like this:

Wednesday, September 21st: The Moon Occults Aldebaran

The occultation footprint of tonight's Aldebaran event.
The occultation footprint of tonight’s Aldebaran event.

Image credit Occult 4.2

The 67% illuminated waning gibbous Moon occults the +0.9 magnitude star Aldebaran. The Moon is two days prior to Last Quarter phase during the event. Both are located 109 degrees west of the Sun at the time of the event. The central time of conjunction is 22:37 Universal Time (UT). The event occurs during the daylight hours over southeast Asia, China, Japan and the northern Philippines and under darkness for India, Pakistan and the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa. The Moon will next occult Aldebaran on October 19th. This is occultation 23 in the current series of 49 running from January 29th 2015 to September 3rd, 2018. This is one of the more central occultations of Aldebaran by the Moon for 2016.

india-view

The view from India tonight, just before the occultation begins. Image credit: Stellarium

Fun Fact-In the current century, (2001-2100 AD) the Moon occults Aldebaran 247 times, topped only by Antares (386 times) and barely beating out Spica (220 times).

Or maybe, another fun fact could be: A frequent setting for science fiction sagas, Aldebaran is now also often confused in popular culture with Alderaan, Princess Leia’s late homeworld from the Star Wars saga.

Like it? Thoughts, suggestions, complaints?

Now for the Wow! Factor for tonight’s occultation. Aldebaran is 65 light years distant, meaning the light we’re seeing left the star in 1951 before getting photobombed by the Moon just over one second before reaching the Earth.

There are also lots of other occultations of fainter stars worldwide over the next 24 hours, as the Moon crosses the Hyades.

And follow that Moon, as a series of 20 occultations of the bright star Regulus during every lunation begins later this year on December 18th.

Gadi Eidelheit managed to catch the March 14th, 2016 daytime occultation of Aldebaran from Israel:

And also in the ‘Moon passing in front of things’ department, here’s a noble attempt at capturing a difficult occultation of Neptune by the Moon last week on September 15th, courtesy of Veijo Timonen based in Hämeenlinna Finland:

Lets see, that’s a +8th magnitude planet next to a brilliant -13th magnitude Moon, one million (15 magnitudes) times brighter… it’s amazing you can see Neptune at all!

Last item: tomorrow marks the September (southward) equinox, ushering in the start of astronomical fall in the northern hemisphere, and the beginning of Spring in the southern. The precise minute of equinoctial crossing is 14:21 UT. In the 21st century, the September equinox can fall anywhere from September 21st to September 23rd. Bob King has a great recent write-up on the equinox and the Moon.

Here's EVERY occultation of Aldebaran from 2015 through 2018. (Click to enlarge) Credit: Occult 4.2.
Here’s EVERY occultation of Aldebaran from 2015 through 2018. (Click to enlarge) Credit: Occult 4.2.

Don’t miss tonight’s passage of Aldebaran through the Hyades, and there’s lots more where that came from headed into 2017!