Watch Venus as it Wanders Through the Dawn in 2014

Venus as captured by Shahrin Ahmad (@shahgazer) on January 31st, 2014. Credit-

Are you a chronic early riser? Observational astronomy often means late nights and early mornings as daylight lengths get longer for northern hemisphere residents in February through March. But this year offers another delight for the early morning crowd, as the Venus is hanging out in the dawn skies for most of 2014.

You may have already caught sight of the brilliant world: it’s hard to miss, currently shinning at a dazzling -4.5 magnitude in the dawn. Venus is the brightest planet as seen from Earth and the third brightest natural object in the night sky after the Sun and the Moon.

Venus just passed between the Earth and the Sun last month on January 11th at inferior conjunction. Passing over five degrees north of the Sun, this was a far cry from the historic 2012 transit of the solar disk, a feat that won’t be replicated again until 2117 AD.

But February and March offer some notable events worth watching out for as Venus wanders in the dawn.

The path of Venus from February 4th to September 23rd, 2014. The first (top) graphic lays out the path as seen at dawn from latitude 30 degrees north, while the bottom lays out the path of Venus as seen from latitude 30 degrees south. Note that the orientation of the ecliptic in the top frame is set for September 23rd, while the bottom frame is set for February 4th, respectively. Created using Starry Night Education software.
The path of Venus from February 4th to September 23rd, 2014. The first (top) graphic lays out the path as seen at dawn from latitude 30 degrees north, while the bottom lays out the path of Venus as seen from latitude 30 degrees south. Note that the orientation of the ecliptic in the top frame is set for September 23rd, while the bottom frame is set for February 4th, respectively. Created using Starry Night Education software.

This week sees Venus thicken as a 48” 16% illuminated waxing crescent as it continues to present more of its daytime side to the Earth. We’ve always thought that it was a bit of cosmic irony that the closest planet too us presents no surface detail to observers: Venus is a cosmic tease. This assured that astronomers knew almost nothing about Venus until the dawn of the Space Age — guesses at its rotational speed and surface conditions were all widely speculative.  Ideas of a vast extraterrestrial jungle or surface-spanning seas of seltzer water oceans gave way to the reality of a shrouded hellish inferno with noontime temps approaching 460 degrees Celsius. Venus is also bizarre in the fact that it rotates once every 243 Earth days, which is longer than its 224.7 day year — you could easily out walk a Venusian sunrise, that is if you could somehow survive to see it from its perpetually clouded surface!

Venus also passes 4.3 degrees from faint Pluto this week on February 5th. And while Pluto is a tough catch at over a million times fainter than Venus, it’s interesting to consider that NASA’s New Horizons and ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft are also currently off in the same general direction:

Venus and the invisible lineup of deep space missions in the same general direction this week. Also note that Venus has been skirting the non-zodiac constellation of Scutum this season! Created using Starry Night Education Software,
Venus and the invisible lineup of deep space missions in the same general direction this week. Also note that Venus has been skirting the non-zodiacal constellation of Scutum this season! Created using Starry Night Education Software.

Venus also reaches greatest brilliancy at magnitude -4.6 next week on February 11th. Venus is bright enough to cast a shadow onto a high contrast background, such as freshly fallen snow. Can you see your “Venusian shadow” with the naked eye? How about photographically?

Venus then goes on to show its greatest illuminated extent to us on February 15th. This combination occurs because although the crescent of Venus is fattening, the apparent size of the disk is shrinking as the planet pulls away from us in its speedy interior orbit. Can you spy the elusive “ashen light of Venus” through a telescope? Long a controversy, this has been reported by observers as a dim “glow” on the nighttime hemisphere of Venus. Proposed explanations for the ashen light of Venus over the years have been airglow, aurorae, lightning, Venusian land  clearing activity (!) or, more likely, an optical illusion.

And speaking of which, the crescent Venus gets occulted by the waning crescent Moon on February 26th. Observers in western Africa will see this occur in the predawn skies, and the rest of us will see a close pass of the pair worldwide. Can you spot Venus near the crescent Moon in the daytime sky on the 26th?

The Moon and Venus at dawn on February 25th for observers along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.
The Moon and Venus at dawn on February 25th for observers along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. Created using Stellarium.

In March, Venus begins the slide southward towards the point occupied by the Sun months earlier and heads towards its greatest westward elongation for 2014 on March 22nd at 46.6 degrees west of the Sun. Interestingly, Venus is tracing out roughly the same track it took 8 years ago in 2006 and will trace again in 2022, when it will also spend a majority of the year in the dawn once again. The 8-year repeating cycle of Venus is a result of the planet completing very nearly 13 orbits of the Sun to our 8. Ancient cultures, including the Maya, Egyptians, and Babylonian astronomers all knew of this period.

Through the telescope, Venus appears at a tiny “half-moon” phase 50% illuminated at greatest elongation, a point known as dichotomy.  It’s interesting to note that theoretical and observed dichotomy can actually vary by several days surrounding greatest elongation. An optical phenomenon, or a true observational occurrence? When do you judge that dichotomy occurs in 2014?

In April, one of the closest planetary conjunctions occurs of 2014 on the 12th involving Neptune and Venus at just 40’ apart, a little over the span of a Full Moon. Can you squeeze both into an eyepiece field of view? At +7.7th magnitude, Neptune shines at over 25,000 times fainter than Venus. Neith, the spurious “moon” of Venus described by 18th century astronomers lives!

But two even more dramatic conjunctions occur late in the summer, when Jupiter passes just 15’ from Venus on August 18th and Regulus stands just 42’ from Venus on September 5th. Fun fact: Venus actually occulted Regulus last century on July 7th, 1959!

From there on out, Venus heads toward superior conjunction on the far side of the Sun on October 25th, to once again emerge into the dusk sky through late 2014 and 2015.

Be sure to check out these dawn exploits of Venus through this Spring season and beyond!


New Horizons Spacecraft ‘Stays the Course’ for Pluto System Encounter

The Pluto and Charon Binary Planet System imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will pass through in 2015 using the original baseline trajectory . Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

Following an intense 18 month study to determine if NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft faced potentially destructive impact hazards during its planned 2015 flyby of the Pluto binary planet system, the mission team has decided to ‘stay the course’ – and stick with the originally planned trajectory because the danger posed by dust and debris is much less than feared.

The impact assessment study was conducted because the Pluto system was discovered to be much more complex – and thus even more scientifically compelling – after New Horizons was launched in January 2006 from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Two years ago researchers using the iconic Hubble Space Telescope discovered two new moons orbiting around Pluto, bringing the total to 5 moons!

It was feared that debris hitting the moons could have created dangerous dust clouds that in turn would slam into and damage the spacecraft as it zoomed past Pluto at speeds of some 30,000 miles per hour (more than 48,000 kilometers per hour) in July 2015.

“We found that loss of the New Horizons mission by dust impacting the spacecraft is very unlikely, and we expect to follow the nominal, or baseline, mission timeline that we’ve been refining over the past few years,” says New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in a statement.

After both the team and an independent review board and NASA thoroughly analyzed the data, it was determined that New Horizons has only a 0.3 percent chance of suffering a mission destroying dust impact event using the baseline trajectory.

Hubble Space Telescope view of Pluto and its known moons.
Hubble Space Telescope view of Pluto and its known moons.

The 0.3 percent probability of mission loss is far less than some earlier estimates.

This is really good news because the team can focus most of its efforts on developing the flyby encounter science plan when New Horizons swoops to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,800 miles) of Pluto’s surface.

Pluto forms a “double planet” system with Charon, its largest moon. Charon is half the size of Pluto.

But the team will still expend some effort on developing alternative trajectories – known as SHBOTs, short for Safe Haven by Other Trajectories, just in case new information arises from the ships camera observations that would force a change in plans as New Horizons sails ever closer to Pluto.

“Still, we’ll be ready with two alternative timelines, in the event that the impact risk turns out to be greater than we think,” says Weaver.

Indeed the team, led by Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute is finalizing the encounter plan this month and plans a rehearsal in July of the most critical nine-day segment of the baseline flyby trajectory.

New Horizons will perform the first reconnaissance of Pluto and Charon in July 2015. The “double planet” is the last planet in our solar system to be visited by a spacecraft from Earth.

And New Horizons doesn’t’ stop at Pluto. The goal is to explore one or more of the icy Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO’s) further out in the Solar System.

The team will use the Pluto flyby to redirect New Horizons to a KBO that is yet to be identified.

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013. Launch: Nov. 18, 2013

Ken Kremer

Learn more about Pluto, Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, LADEE and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations

June 23: “Send your Name to Mars on MAVEN” and “CIBER Astro Sat, LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8 PM

Help Scientists Decide on Which KBOs the New Horizons Spacecraft Will Visit

How would you like to help choose an additional destination or two for a spacecraft heading to the outer solar system? A new citizen science project from the Zooniverse — called Ice Hunters — will allow the public to help discover a potential new, icy follow-on destination for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which is currently en route to make the first flyby of the Pluto system. However, after it zooms past Pluto, the spacecraft will have the capability to explore other Kuiper Belt Objects. But, the destination has yet to be chosen. That’s where you can help.

“Projects like this make the public part of modern space exploration,” said Dr. Pamela Gay. “The New Horizon’s mission was launched knowing we’d have to discover the object it would visit after Pluto. Now is the time to make that discovery and thanks to IceHunters, anyone can be that discoverer.”

With Ice Hunters, the public can help scientists search through specially-obtained deep telescopic images for currently unknown objects in the Kuiper Belt. While the images you’ll be perusing in Ice Hunters won’t be the beautiful astronomical images seen in the Galaxy Zoo classification of galaxies or the Moon Zoo images of the Moon, the science rewards in Ice Hunters will be spectacular.

And there’s more: there’s also the potential for discovering variable stars and asteroids.

What’s cool is that you’ll be searching for KBO’s and potential dwarf planets in much the same way that Clyde Tombaugh found Pluto: comparing images of the same region of the Kuiper Belt and looking for objects that move or vary in brightness.

“The New Horizons project is breaking new ground in many ways,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern. “We’re flying by a new kind of planet and we’ll be making the most distant encounters with planetary bodies in the history of space exploration, and now we’re employing citizen science to help find our potential extended mission flyby targets, perhaps a billion kilometers farther than even distant Pluto and its moons. We’re very excited to be working with Zooniverse and breaking this new kind of ground. We hope the public will be excited to join in with us and with Zooniverse to make a little history of their own by discovering our next flyby target after Pluto.”

Somewhere, on the outer edges of the solar system an icy body lurks undiscovered, orbiting on a path that will just happen to carry it toward a potential rendezvous with the New Horizons spacecraft.

New Horizons will flyby Pluto in 2015, and there will be enough gas in the spacecraft’s tank to fly toward at least one and possibly two Kuiper Belt Objects in the distant outer solar system. The expected date of the KBO flyby will be between 2016 and 2020, depending on the object chosen and its distance from Pluto.

Your mission, should you choose to accept, is to find the most interesting KBO possible for New Horizons to visit. If that object can be found , it will become the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft from Earth.

The Kuiper Belt is a region of the outer solar system, extending past Neptune, (from 30AU) out to nearly twice Neptune’s orbit (out to roughly 55AU), which contains icy bodies in a variety of different sizes up to thousands of kilometers across. The first KBO other than Pluto was only discovered in 1992, and the KBO population is still not well mapped. Ice Hunters will do its part to study one small slice of the Kuiper Belt as it looks for an object along New Horizon’s trajectory after its Pluto flyby.

Using some of the largest telescopes in the world, scientists have imaged that region, producing millions of pictures for that could contain images of the rare objects that are orbiting toward just the right location, along with many other small worlds on different trajectories.

In “difference” images, which are created by subtracting observations taken at two different times, scientists can mostly (but not entirely) remove the light from constant sources like stars and galaxies. Left behind are the things that move or vary in brightness, which is what the users of IceHunters will be looking for. Since the stars never subtract off perfectly, the images appear messy, and computers can’t be trained to find objects as effectively as people can.

“When you’re looking for something special in masses of messy, real-world data, sometimes there’s no substitute for the human eye, and Zooniverse Ice Hunters will put thousands of eyes to work on this important job,” said John Spencer of Southwest Research Institute, a member of the New Horizons science team who is coordinating the search effort.

Just as other Zooniverse projects have easy-to-use websites, is no different. “Using just about any modern web-browser, users can circle potential KBOs and mark with a star the locations of asteroids,” said web developer Cory Lehan from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, who has participated in several Zooniverse web designs. “The website is filled with examples to help get people started. Anyone should be able to take part – No Flash required.”

So check out Ice Hunters and start discovering today!

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.