Catch Jupiter Homing in on Venus Through June

Getting closer... Venus, Jupiter, the Moon and an iridium flare on the night of May 26th, 2015. Image credit and copyright: Chris Lyons

Are you ready to hear an upswing in queries from friends/family and/or strangers on Twitter asking “what are those two bright stars in the evening sky?”

It’s time to arm yourself with knowledge against the well-meaning astronomical onslaught. The month of June sees the celestial action heat up come sundown, as the planet Jupiter closes in on Venus in the dusk sky. Both are already brilliant beacons at magnitudes -1.5 and -4 respectively, and it’s always great to catch a meeting of the two brightest planets in the sky.

June 5th
Looking west on the evening of June 5th from latitude 30 degrees north… Image credit: Stellarium

Be sure to follow Venus and Jupiter through June, as they close in on each other at a rate of over ½ a degree—that’s more than the diameter of a Full Moon—per day.

June 20th
…and looking west on the evening of June 20th…

Venus starts June at 20 degrees from Jupiter on the first week of the month, and closes to less than 10 degrees separation by mid-month before going on to a final closing of less than one degree on the last day of the June. Th climax comes on July 1st, when Venus and Jupiter sit just over 20’ apart—2/3rds the diameter of a Full Moon—on July 1st at 3:00 UT or 11:00 PM EDT (on June 30th). This translates to a closest approach on the evening of June 30th for North America.

July 1st
… and finally, looking westward on the evening of July 1st.

Venus starts the first week of June forming a straight line equally spaced with the bright stars Castor and Pollux in the astronomical constellation Gemini. On June 12-13, Venus actually nicks the Beehive cluster M44 in the constellation Cancer, a fine sight through binoculars.

Credit: Starry night Education software
The apparent paths of Venus versus Jupiter through the month of June. Credit: Starry Night Education software

Jupiter and Venus will then be joined by the Moon on the evening of June 20th to form a skewed ‘smiley face’ emoticon pairing. Not only is the pairing of Venus and the crescent Moon represented on many national flags, But the evening of June 20th will also be a great time to try your hand at daytime planet spotting before sunset, using the nearby crescent Moon as a guide.

The daytime view of Venus, the Moon and Jupiter of the evening of June 20th. Image Credit: Stellarium
The daytime view of Venus, the Moon and Jupiter of the evening of June 20th. Image Credit: Stellarium

The Moon will actually occult Venus three times in 2015: On July 19th as seen from the South Pacific, on October 8th as seen from Australia and New Zealand, and finally, on December 7th as seen from North America in the daytime.

This conjunction of Venus and Jupiter occurs just across the border in the astronomical constellation of Leo. As Venus can always be found in the dawn or dusk sky, Jupiter must come to it, and conjunctions of the two planets occur roughly once every calendar year. A wider dawn pass of the two planets occurs this year on October 25th, and in 2019 Jupiter again meets up with Venus twice, once in January and once in November. The last close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter occurred on August 18th, 2014, and an extremely close (4’) conjunction of Venus and Jupiter is on tap for next year on August 27th. Check out our nifty list of conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter for the remainder of the decade from last year’s post.

The view through the telescope on the evenings June 30th and July 1st will be stunning, as it’ll be possible to fit a 34% illuminated 32” crescent Venus and a 32” Jupiter plus its four major moons all in the same low power field of view. Jupiter sits 6 astronomical units (AU) from Earth, and Venus is 0.5 AU away on July 1st.

30 FoV
Looking at Jupiter and Venus on July 1st using a 30 arc minute filed of view. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software

And just think of what the view from Jupiter would be like, as Venus and Earth sit less than 3 arc minutes apart:

View from jupiter
The view from Jupiter on July 1st looking at the Earth. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

Venus reaches solar conjunction this summer on August 15th, and Jupiter follows suit on August 26th. Both enter the field of view of the European Space Agency’s Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) LASCO C3 camera in mid-August, and are visible in the same for the remainder of the month before they pass into the dawn sky.

But beyond just inspiring inquires, close conjunctions of bright planets can actually raise political tensions as well. In 2012, Indian army sentries reported bright lights along India’s mountainous northern border with China. Thought to be reconnaissance spy drones, astronomers later identified the lights as Venus and Jupiter, seen on repeated evenings. We can see how they got there; back in the U.S. Air Force, we’ve seen Venus looking like a ‘mock F-16 fighter’ in the desert dusk sky as we recovered aircraft in Kuwait. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed during the India-China incident and no shots were exchanged, which could well have led to a wider conflict…

Remember:  Scientific ignorance can be harmful, and astronomical knowledge of things in the sky can save lives!

Two Observing Challenges: Catch Venus Passing Neptune And Occulting a Bright Star

The Milky Way, The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, Zodiacal Light, and Venus as seen from the Karoo Desert in South Africa early this month. Credit: Cory Schmitz.

 Have you been following the planet Venus this season? 2014 sees the brightest planet in our Earthly skies spend a majority of its time in the dawn. Shining at magnitude -3.8, it’s hard to miss in the morning twilight. But dazzling Venus is visiting two unique celestial objects over the next week, and both present unique observing challenges for the seasoned observer.

First up is an interesting close conjunction of the planets Venus and Neptune on the morning of Saturday, April 12th. Closest conjunction occurs at 3:00 Universal Time (UT) April 12th favoring Eastern Europe, the Middle East and eastern Africa, when the two worlds appear to be just 40 arc minutes apart, a little over – by about 10’ – the apparent size of a full Moon. Shining at magnitude +7.8 and 30,000 times fainter than Venus, you’ll need a telescope to tease out Neptune from the pre-dawn sky. Both objects will, however, easily fit in a one degree field of view, in addition to a scattering of other stars.

Looking to the east the morning of April 12th from the U.S. East Coast near latitude 30 degrees north.  Nearby stars are annotated in red by magnitude with decimals omitted. Created using Stellarium, click to enlarge.

At low power, Venus will display a 59% illuminated gibbous phase 20” across on the morning of the 12th, while Neptune will show a tiny disk barely 2” across. Still, this represents the first chance for viewers to recover Neptune since solar conjunction behind the Sun on February 23rd, 2014, using dazzling Venus as a guide.

Both sit 45 degrees west of the Sun and currently rise around 3 to 4 AM local dependent on latitude.

This is one of the closest planet-planet conjunctions for 2014. The closest is Venus and Jupiter at just 0.2 degrees apart on August 18th. This will represent the brightest planet versus planet conjunction for the year, and is sure to illicit multiple “what’s those two bright stars in the sky?” queries from morning commuters… hopefully, such sightings won’t result in any border skirmishes worldwide.

Now, for the mandatory Wow factor. On the date of conjunction, Earth-sized Venus is 0.84 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) or over 130 million kilometres distant. Ice giant Neptune, however, is 30.7 AUs or 36 times as distant, and only appears tiny though it’s almost four times larger in diameter.  Sunlight reflected from Venus takes 7 minutes to reach Earth, but over four hours to arrive from Neptune. We’ve visited Venus lots, and the Russians have even landed there and returned images from its smoldering surface, but we’ve only visited Neptune once, during a brief flyby of Voyager 2 in 1989.

From Neptune looking back on April 12th, Earth and Venus would appear less than 1 arc minute apart…. though they’d also be just over one degree from the Sun!

The "shadow path" of the occultation of Lambda Aquarii by Venus on April 16th. Credit: IOTA/Steve Preston/www.asteroidoccultation/Occult 4.0.
The “shadow path” of the occultation of Lambda Aquarii by Venus on April 16th. Credit: IOTA/Steve Preston/www.asteroidoccultation/Occult 4.0.

But an even more bizarre event happens a few days later on April 16th, though only a small region of the world in the South Pacific may bare witness to it.

Next Wednesday from 17:59 to 18:13 UT Venus occults the +3.7 magnitude star HIP 112961 also known as Lambda Aquarii on the morning of April 16th 2014.

Venus will be a 61% illuminated gibbous phase 19” in diameter. Unfortunately, although North America is rotated towards the event, it’s also in the middle of the day.

The best prospects to observe the occultation are from New Zealand and western Pacific at dawn. The star will disappear behind the bright limb of Venus in dawn twilight before emerging on its dark limb 5 minutes later as seen from New Zealand.

Starry Night
The path of Lambda Aquarii behind Venus as seen from New Zealand the morning of the 16th. Created in Starry Night.

Note: New Zealand switched back to standard time on April 6th – it’s currently Fall down under – and local sunrise occurs around ~7:40 AM.

Lambda Aquarii is a 3.6 solar mass star located 390 light years distant. As far as we know, it’s a solitary star, though there’s always a chance that a companion could make itself known as it emerges on the dark limb of Venus. Such an observation will, however, be extremely difficult, as Venus is still over 700 times brighter than the star!

North Americans get to see the pair only 20’ apart on the morning of the 12th.

Starry Night
One degree fields of view worldwide showing Venus and Lambda Aquarii at 7AM local. Credit: Starry Night.

And further occultation adventures await Venus in the 21st century. On October 1st, 2044 it will occult Regulus… and on November 22nd, 2065 it will actually occult Jupiter!

Such pairings give us a chance to image Venus with a “pseudo-moon.” Early telescopic observers made numerous sightings of a supposed Moon of Venus, and the hypothetical object even merited the name Neith for a brief time. Such sightings were most likely spurious internal reflections due to poor optics or nearby stars, but its fun to wonder what those observers of old might’ve seen.

… and speaking of moons, don’t miss a chance to see Venus near the daytime Moon April 25th. Follow us as @Astroguyz on Twitter as we give shout outs to these and other strange pairings daily!

Bright Venus Takes Center Stage in November

(Credit: Brian McGaffney/Nutwood Observatory).

“What’s that bright object to the southwest at dusk?” We’ve already fielded more than a few such questions as Earth’s sister world shines in the dusk sky.  Venus just passed its maximum elongation 47 degrees east of the Sun on November 1st, and currently shines at a brilliant magnitude -4.46. This is almost 16 times brighter than the brightest star in the sky, -1.46th magnitude Sirius.

Venus and the waxing crescent Moon, looking to the west tonite at 30 minutes after sunset for latitude 30 degrees north. (Created using Stellarium).
Venus and the waxing crescent Moon, looking to the west tonite at 30 minutes after sunset for latitude 30 degrees north. (Created using Stellarium).

Just like the Moon, Venus goes through a full range of phases. Through the telescope, Venus currently presents a 26.7” diameter disk. That size will swell to almost 40” by month’s end, as Venus begins to approach the Earth and presents a noticeable crescent phase. We just passed dichotomy — the theoretical point where Venus presents a half-illuminated phase as seen from Earth — on October 31st, and Venus already shows a noticeable crescent:

Venus on the night of November 5th 2013, a quick stack of about 200 frames. (Photo by Author)
Venus on the night of November 5th 2013, a quick stack of about 200 frames. (Photo by Author)

Note that we say “theoretical” because there’s typically a discrepancy of a day or two between predicted and observed dichotomy. This is also known as Schröter’s Effect. One probable cause for this is the dazzling appearance of the disk of Venus. We typically use a variable polarizing filter to cut the glare of Venus down at the eyepiece.

You might also note that Venus currently occupies the “basement” of the zodiac in the constellation Sagittarius. In fact, the planet is currently as far south as it can go, sitting at a declination of -27° 14’ on this very evening. You have to go all the way back to 1930 to find a more southerly declination of Venus, just 12’ lower!

But you won’t have to wait much longer to break that record, as the chart below shows for the most southerly declinations of Venus for the next half century:

Year Date Declination
2013 November 6th -27° 09’
2021 “            “ -27° 14’
2029 “            “ -27° 18’
2037 “            “ -27° 23’
2045 “            “ -27° 29’
2053 “            “ -27° 34’
2061 “            “ -27° 39’


Note that each event occurs on November 6th, and they’re spaced 8 years apart. Apparitions of Venus closely duplicate their paths in the sky over an 8 year cycle. This is because the planet nearly completes 13 orbits of the Sun for our 8. Venus “catches up” to the Earth on its interior orbit once every 584 days to reach inferior conjunction. It usually passes above or below the Sun from our vantage point, though last year it transited, a feat that won’t be witnessed again until 2117 AD.

How far south can Venus go? Well, its orbit is tilted 3.4 degrees relative to the ecliptic. It can reach a southern declination of -28 05’, though you have to go way back to 1874 for its last occurrence!

Today is also a great time to try your hand at spotting Venus in the daytime, as a 3-day old waxing crescent Moon lies about eight degrees to its upper right:

A daytime Venus near the Moon transiting to the south at about 3:30PM EST today. A 5 degree wide Telrad "bullseye" is provided for scale. (Credit: Stellarium).
A daytime Venus near the Moon, transiting to the south at about 3:30PM EST today. A 5 degree wide Telrad “bullseye” is provided for scale. (Credit: Stellarium).

Note that seeing Venus in the daytime is surprisingly easy, once you known exactly where to look for it. Your best chances are around mid-afternoon at about 3PM local, when the daytime Moon and Venus lie highest in the southern sky. Did you know that Venus is actually intrinsically brighter per square arc second than the Moon? It’s true! The Moon actually has a very low reflective albedo of 12% — about the equivalent of fresh asphalt — while the cloud tops of Venus are more akin the fresh snow with an albedo of about 80%.

Its also worth checking out Venus and its local environs after nightfall as it passes near the Lagoon (M8) and the Trifid nebula (M8) on the night of November 6th. Continuing with its trek across the star rich plane of the heart of the Milky Way galaxy, Venus also passes near the globular cluster M22 on November 13th.

Venus also sits in the general of Pluto on November 15th, lying just 6.6 degrees south of it. Be sure to wave in the general direction of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft bound for Pluto in July 2015 tonight as well, using the Moon and Venus for a guide:

The position of the Moon, Venus, Pluto, & New Horizons on the night of November 6th, 2013. (Created using Starry Night Education Software).
The position of the Moon, Venus, Pluto, & New Horizons at 14UT on November 7th, 2013. (Created using Starry Night Education Software).

Another shot at seeing Venus paired with the Moon occurs on December 5th.

Venus also presents a maximum area of illumination on December 6th, and will shine at its brightest on December 10th at magnitude -4.7. Can you catch it casting a shadow? The best time to search for this illusive phenomenon would be just before New Moon on December 2nd. A dark sky site away from any other sources of illumination, and a snow covered ground providing high contrast also helps. Fortunately, snow isn’t in short supply in the northern hemisphere in December!

Venus is currently the only naked eye planet in the November early evening sky. We always thought that it’s a bit of a cosmic irony that the nearest planet presents a dazzling, but featureless white disk as seen from Earth. Diligent amateurs have, however, been able to tease out cloud patterns on Venus using UV filters.

Another elusive phenomenon to watch for as Venus reaches a crescent phase is ashen light. Long reported by observers, a faint glow on the night side of Venus is something that persists, but shouldn’t be. A similar effect seen on the night side of the Moon known as Earthshine is easily explained by sunlight being reflected off of the Earth… but Venus has no moon. What gives? Frequent explanations over the years have been aurorae, electrical activity, airglow, or, more frequently cited, observer bias. The brain wants to see a filled in space, and promptly inserts it betwixt the dazzling horns of the planet.

Keep an eye on Venus as it reaches maximum brilliancy and heads towards inferior conjunction on January 11th, 2014, and a rare chance to see it on said date… more to come!