See Venus at Her Most Ravishing

Venus is HUGE right now but oh-so-skinny as it approaches inferior conjunction on August 15. Like crescents? You’ll never see a thinner and more elegant one, but first you’ll have to find it. Here’s how.

On August 9th, Venus is only 6 days before inferior conjunction when it passes between the Earth and Sun. Shortly before, during and after conjunction, Venus will appear as a wire-thin crescent. Venus will continue moving west of the Sun and rise higher in the morning sky after mid-August with greatest elongation west occuring on October 26. Wikipedia with additions by the author
On August 9th, Venus is only 6 days before inferior conjunction when it passes between the Earth and Sun. Shortly before, during and after conjunction, Venus will appear as a wire-thin crescent. The planet will continue moving west of the Sun and rise higher in the morning sky after mid-August with greatest elongation west occurring on October 26, when its phase will fatten to half.
Wikipedia with additions by the author

There’s only one drawback to enjoying Venus at its radically thinnest — it’s very close to the Sun and visible only during the daytime. A look at the diagram above reveals that as Venus and Earth draw closer, the planet also aligns with the Sun. At conjunction on August 15, it will pass 7.9° south of our star, appearing as an impossibly thin crescent in the solar glare. The sight is unique, a curved strand of incandescent wire burning in the blue.

Venus at inferior conjunction on January 10, 2014 shows both the sunlit crescent and cusp extensions from sunlight penetrating the atmosphere from behind. Credit: Tudorica Alexandru
Venus at inferior conjunction on January 10, 2014 shows both the sunlit crescent and cusp extensions caused by sunlight penetrating the atmosphere from behind. During this previous inferior conjunction, Venus passed north of the Sun, so we see the bottom of the crescent illuminated. Credit: Tudorica Alexandru

If you’re patient and the air is steady, you might even glimpse the cusps of the illuminated crescent extending beyond their normal length to partially or even completely encircle Venus’s disk. These thread-like extensions become visible when the planet lies almost directly between us and the Sun. Sunlight scatters off the Venus’s dense atmosphere, causing it to glow faintly along the limb. One of the most remarkable sights in the sky, the sight is testament to the thickness of the planet’s airy envelope.

Going, going, gone! Or almost. Venus photographed in its beautiful crescent phase on two occasions this past week.
Going, going, gone! Venus photographed in its beautiful crescent phase on two occasions last week. When the planet reaches inferior conjunction this Saturday (August 15),  the crescent will expand to nearly 1 arc minute across. No planet comes closer to Earth than Venus — just 27 million miles this week. Credit: Giorgio Rizzarelli

Today, only 1.7% of the planet is illuminated by the Sun, which shines some 11° to the northwest. The Venusian crescent spans 57 arc seconds from tip to tip, very close to 1 arc minute or 1/30 the width of the Full Moon. Come conjunction day August 15, those numbers will be 0.9% and 58 arc seconds. The angular resolution of the human eye is 1 minute, implying that the planet’s shape might be within grasp of someone with excellent eyesight under a clear, clean, cloudless sky. However — and this is a big however — a bright sky and nearby Sun make this practically impossible.

No worries though. Even 7x binoculars will nail it; the trick is finding Venus in the first place. For binocular users,  hiding the Sun COMPLETELY behind a building, chimney, power pole or tree is essential. The goddess lurks dangerously close to our blindingly-bright star, so you must take every precaution to protect your eyes. Never allow direct sunlight into your glass. Never look directly at the Sun – even for a second – with your eyes or UV and infrared light will sear your retinas. You can use the map provided, which shows several locations of the planet at 1 p.m. CDT when it’s highest in the sky, to help you spot it.

The Sun's position is shown for 1 p.m. local daylight time, while Venus is shown for three dates - today, conjunction date and Aug. 21. As Venus moves from left to right under or south of the Sun, its phase swings from evening crescent (left) to morning crescent from our perspective on Earth. Source: Stellarium with additions by the author
The Sun’s position is shown for 1 p.m. local daylight time facing due south, while Venus and its corresponding phase is depicted before, at and after conjunction. As Venus moves from left to right south of the Sun, its phase changes from evening crescent (left) to morning crescent from our perspective on Earth. Source: Stellarium with additions by the author

If you’d like to see Venus on a different day or time, download a free sky-charting program like Stellarium or Cartes du Ciel. With Stellarium, open the Sky and Viewing Options menu (F4) and click the Light Pollution Level option down to “1” to show Venus in a daytime sky. Pick a viewing time, note Venus’s orientation with respect to the Sun (which you’ve hidden of course!) and look at that spot in the sky with binoculars. I’ll admit, it’s a challenging observation requiring haze-free skies, but be persistent.

By coincidence, the Moon and Venus will be about the same distance from the Sun and appear as exceedingly thin crescents on the afternoon (CDT) of August 13. Source: Stellarium
By coincidence, the Moon and Venus will be about the same distance from the Sun and appear as very similar thin crescents around 1 p.m. CDT on August 13.  Venus should still be visible using the methods described below, but the Moon will be impossible to see. Source: Stellarium

A safer and more sure-fire way to track the planet down involves using those setting circles on your telescope mount most of us never bother with. First, find the celestial coordinates (right ascension and declination) of the Sun and Venus for the time you’d like to view. For example, let’s say we want to find Venus on August 10 at 2 p.m. Using your free software, you click on the Sun and Venus’s positions for that time of day to get their coordinates, in this case:

Venus – Right ascension 9h 42 minutes, declination +6°.
Sun – RA 9h 22 minutes, dec. +15° 30 minutes

Now subtract the two to get Venus’ offset from the Sun = 20 minutes east, 9.5° south.

Dust off those setting circles (declination shown here) and use them to point you to Venus this week. Credit: Bob King
Dust off those setting circles (declination shown here, marked off in degrees) and use them to point you to Venus this week. Credit: Bob King

Next, polar align your telescope using a compass and then cover the objective end with a safe mylar or glass solar filter. Center and sharply focus the Sun in the telescope. Now, loosen the RA lock and carefully offset the right ascension 20 minutes east using your setting circle, then re-lock. Do the same with declination, pointing the telescope 9.5° south of the Sun. If you’re polar alignment is reasonably good, when you remove the solar filter and look through the eyepiece, you should see Venus staring back at you from a blue sky. If you see nothing at first, nudge it a little this way and that to bring the planet into view.

Sometimes it takes me a couple tries, but I eventually stumble arrive on target. Obviously, you can also use this technique to spot Mercury and Jupiter in the daytime, too. By the way, don’t worry what the RA and Dec. read on your setting circles when you begin your hunt; only the offset’s important.

When inferior conjunction occurs at the same time Venus crosses the plane of Earth's orbit, we see a rare transit like this one on June 5, 2012. Credit: Bob King
When inferior conjunction occurs at the same time Venus crosses the plane of Earth’s orbit, we see a rare transit (upper right) like this one on June 5, 2012. Credit: Bob King

This year’s conjunction is one of the best for finding Venus in daylight because it’s relatively far from the Sun. With an orbital inclination of 3.2°, Venus’s position can range up to 8° north and south of the Earth’s orbital plane or ecliptic. Rarely does the planet cross the ecliptic at the same time as inferior conjunction. When it does, we experience a transit of VenusTransits always come in pairs; the last set occurred in 2004 and 2012; the next will happen over 100 years from now in 2117 and 2125.

I hope you’re able to make the most of this opportunity while still respecting your tender retinas. Good luck!

Mercury and Venus an Awesome Duo at Dusk

As Universe Today’s Dave Dickinson described earlier this week not only has Venus returned to the evening sky, but Mercury has climbed up from the horizon to join it. Last night (Jan. 9th) the two planets were separated by just a hair more than one Moon diameter. The photo only hints at amazingly easy the pair was to see. Consider the duo a tasty hors d’oeuvres before the onset of night and the Comet Lovejoy show.

Tonight the duo will be at their closest and remain near one another for the next week or so. This is one of Mercury’s best apparitions of the year for northern hemisphere skywatchers and well worth donning your winter uniform of coat, boots, hat and thick gloves for a look. Just find a location with a decent view of the southwestern horizon and start looking about a half hour after sunset. Mercury and Venus will be about 10° or one fist held at arm’s length high above the horizon.

Through a telescope both Venus and Mercury are in gibbous phase with Venus more fully filled out. Both are also very small with Venus about 10 arc seconds and Mercury 6 seconds across. Source: Stellarium
Through a telescope both Venus and Mercury are in gibbous phase with Venus more fully filled out. Both are very small with Venus about 10 arc seconds in diameter and Mercury 6 seconds. Source: Stellarium

Venus will jump right out. Mercury’s a couple magnitudes fainter and lies to the right of the goddess planet.  By 45 minutes after sunset, Mercury gets even easier to see. Find your sunset time HERE so you can best plan your outing.

Mark your calendars for a cool conjunction of the 1-day-old lunar crescent, Mercury and Venus on January 21st. Source: Stellarium
Mark your calendars for a cool conjunction of the 1-day-old lunar crescent, Mercury and Venus on January 21st. Source: Stellarium

Because both planets are still fairly low in the sky and far away, they present only tiny, blurry gibbous disks in the telescope. Later this spring, Venus will climb higher and show its changing phases more clearly. Keep watch the coming week to catch the ever-shifting positions of Venus and Mercury in the evening sky as each follows the binding arc of its own orbit. The grand finale occurs on January 21st when a skinny crescent Moon joins the duo (Mercury now fading) for a triumphant trio. Has this been an exciting month or what?

What Does Earth Look Like From the Moon?

If you could stand on the Moon and look back at the Earth, what would you see? How would it compare from our familiar vantage point?

We know what the Moon looks like from Earth, but what would the Earth look like from the Moon?

Pretty strange, actually.

The Moon is tidally locked to us, and it presents only one face to the Earth.

If you were on the near side of the Moon, the Earth would always be in the sky. And if you were on the far side, you’d never see it.

Also, it’s weird there. So you’d probably want to move.

If you were standing on the Moon, looking up, you’d see the Earth, hanging in the sky forever, or for however long your robot body holds out.

It would go through phases, like the Moon, moving from total darkness, though quarter illumination, Full Earth, and back again. But the features on the Earth would be changing. The face of the Earth would be illuminated, and you’d see the entire planet turning throughout the day and you could use it to cheat on Geography tests.

It wouldn’t be totally dark on the night side because “humans”. You’d see those beautiful blobs of stringy light on the shadowed parts of the Earth.

Our Moon follows an elliptical path around the Earth, getting as close as 363,000 km and as far as 405,000 km.

This means the Earth would get bigger and smaller in the sky. As Earth is much larger than the Moon, it would take up 13 times as much area.

The Earth wouldn’t actually hang motionless in the sky. We see lunar libration from our perspective, which lets us peek around the corner of the Moon. But from the Moon, we’d see the Earth move back and forth in the sky over 27 days.

Earthrise  (credit—Apollo 8/NASA)
Earthrise (credit—Apollo 8/NASA)

Remember this famous Earthrise photo captured by Apollo 8? It’s on every single sales brochure for lunar real estate.

Don’t be fooled, if you were on the Moon, you’d never see an Earthrise like that.
In fact, the only way to get a view like that is be on a spacecraft orbiting the Moon.

If I lived on the Moon, I’d want property Earthside.

Would you like to see the Earth from the Moon? What other views of the Solar System would you like to get?

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

Observing Alert: See Mercury’s Best Evening Show of the Year

Don’t let furtive Mercury slip through your fingers this spring. The next two and a half weeks will be the best time this year  for observers north of the tropics to spot the sun-hugging planet. If you’ve never seen Mercury,  you might be surprised how bright it can be. This is especially true early in its apparition when the planet looks like a miniature ‘full moon’. 

Mercury, like Venus, displays phases as it revolves around the sun as seen from Earth's perspective outside Mercury's orbit. Credit: Bob King
Mercury, like Venus, displays phases as it revolves around the sun as seen from Earth’s perspective outside Mercury’s orbit. Both Mercury and Venus appear largest when nearly lined up between Earth and sun at inferior conjunction. Planets not to scale and phases shown are approximate. Credit: Bob King

Both Venus and Mercury pass through phases identical to those of the moon. When between us and the sun, Mercury’s a thin crescent, when off to one side, a ‘half-moon’ and when on the far side of the sun, a full moon. This apparition of the planet is excellent because Mercury’s path it steeply tilted to the horizon in mid-spring.

We start the weekend with Mercury nearly full and brighter than the star Arcturus. Twilight tempers its radiance, but :

* Find a location with a wide open view to the northwest as far down to the horizon as possible.

* Click HERE to get your sunset time and begin looking for the planet about 30-40 minutes after sunset in the direction of the sunset afterglow.

* Reach your arm out to the northwestern horizon and look a little more than one vertically-held fist  (10-12 degrees) above it for a singular, star-like object. Found it? Congratulations – that’s Mercury!

* No luck? Start with binoculars instead and sweep the bright sunset glow until you find Mercury. Once you know exactly where to look, lower the binoculars from your eyes and you should see the planet without optical aid. And before I forget – be sure to focus the binoculars on a distant object like a cloud or the moon before beginning your sweeps. I guarantee you won’t find Mercury if it’s out of focus.

Through a telescope, Mercury looks like a gibbous moon right now but its phase will lessen as it moves farther to the ‘left’ or east of the sun. Greatest eastern elongation happens on May 24. On and around that date the planet will be farthest from the sun, standing 12-14 degrees high 40 minutes after sundown from most mid-northern locales.

jjjjjjj
Mercury is even better placed on May 19 but fades and begins to drop back down toward the horizon late in the month. Stellarium

The planet fades in late May and become difficult to see by early June. Inferior conjunction, when Mercury passes between the Earth and sun, occurs on June 19. Unlike Venus, which remains brilliant right up through its crescent phase, Mercury loses so much reflective surface area as a crescent that it fades to magnitude +3. Its greater distance from Earth, lack of reflective clouds and smaller size can’t compete with closer, brighter and bigger Venus.

Mercury's path across the solar disk as seen from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) on November 8, 2006. The transit was visible in eastern Europe and the eastern hemisphere. Credit: NASA.
When a planet crosses the disk of the sun it’s called a transit. Mercury’s path across the solar disk is seen from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) on November 8, 2006. Credit: NASA.

Mercury’s 7-degree inclined orbit means it typically glides well above or below the sun’s disk at inferior conjunction. But anywhere from 3 up to 13 years in either November or May the planet passes directly between the Earth and sun at inferior conjunction and we witness a transit. This last happened for U.S. observers on Nov. 8, 2006; the next transit occurs exactly two years from today on May 9, 2016. That event will be widely visible across the Americas, Western Europe and Africa. After having so much fun watching the June 2012 transit of Venus I can’t wait.

 

Venus And Moon Caught In A Crazy, Phase-y Coincidence Tonight

Curious coincidences occur in the sky just as they do on Earth. Take tonight for instance. The moon is in gibbous phase or about 3/4 full – 78% to be exact – while Venus, which also undergoes phases identical to the moon, is likewise gibbous and 78% full.

That’s just cool. If you have telescope, focus on Venus low in the western sky just after sunset and see a perfect replica in miniature of tonight’s moon.

Look for the cloudy but beautiful planet about a fist up in the west-southwest shortly after sunset. Stellarium
Look for Venus about a fist up in the west-southwest shortly after sunset. Stellarium

Be sure you’re out early as the planet is low to begin with and drops lower in the west with each passing minute. Provided the sky is haze-free, Venus isn’t difficult to spot even 5 minutes after sunset. Look about 10 degrees (one fist held at arm’s length) above the west-southwest horizon.

The moon and Venus are coincidentally in exactly the same phase tonight - 78% gibbous. Stellarium
The moon and Venus are coincidentally in exactly the same phase tonight – 78% gibbous. Stellarium

The moon shows spectacular craters and mountains, but Venus hides its equally spectacular scenery of volcanic mountains, craters and cracked plains beneath a permanent cover of sulfur-dioxide-laced clouds. Clouds are excellent reflectors of sunlight. Not only is the planet brilliant because of them but looks as white as a shiny cue ball.

Venus' changing position with relation to the Earth as it orbits around the sun causes it to exhibit phases like the moon. I've marked approximately where Venus is in mid-August. After gibbous, the planet will wane to half and then a crescent over the coming months as it catches up and passes the Earth. Illustration: Bob King
Venus’ changing position with relation to the Earth as it orbits around the sun causes it to exhibit phases like the moon. I’ve marked approximately where Venus is in mid-August. After gibbous, the planet will wane to half and then a crescent over the coming months as it catches up and passes the Earth. Illustration: Bob King

Tomorrow night the moon and Venus will go their own phase-y way, the moon fattening up toward full and Venus slowly slimming its waistline as it works its way toward the Earth. For now enjoy their temporary bond.

Bottoms Up! It’s a Year of Lunar Libration From Down Under


Do you live in the southern hemisphere? Are you tired of all those views of the Moon that favor celestial north as up? Well here’s a video just for you from the good folks at the GSFC Scientific Visualization Center — it shows the full 2013 year of lunar phases and libration as seen from Earth’s southern half using data gathered by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. (Because what’s so great about north, anyway?)

Each frame represents one hour. Side graphs indicate the Moon’s orbit position, sub-Earth and subsolar points, and distance from the Earth at true scale. Awesome! Um, I mean… bonzer!

And what’s up with all that wobbling around? Find out more below:

The Moon always keeps the same face to us, but not exactly the same face. Because of the tilt and shape of its orbit, we see the Moon from slightly different angles over the course of a month. When a month is compressed into 24 seconds, as it is in this animation, our changing view of the Moon makes it look like it’s wobbling. This wobble is called libration.

The word comes from the Latin for “balance scale” and refers to the way such a scale tips up and down on alternating sides.

The Moon is subject to other motions as well. It appears to roll back and forth around the sub-Earth point (the location on the Moon’s surface where the Earth appears directly overhead, at the zenith.) The roll angle is given by the position angle of the axis, which is the angle of the Moon’s north pole relative to celestial north. The Moon also approaches and recedes from us, appearing to grow and shrink. The two extremes, called perigee (near) and apogee (far), differ by more than 10%.

Read more and see the current phase of the Moon (bottom up) on the GSFC Dial-a-Moon page here.

Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Pick Up Some Good Librations With This Stunning Moon Video


As the Moon orbits Earth, it rotates at such a rate as to keep the same face aiming our way… but not exactly the same face, as shown in this excellent video from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (lovingly annotated by the Bad Astronomer himself, Dr. Phil Plait.)

[/caption]

The Moon has a slight wobble to its axial rotation, and over the course of a month its orientation shifts slightly — an effect called libration. Think of it like a top or gyroscope spinning on a table; it doesn’t spin perfectly vertically, but rather sways a bit while it spins. Libration is that sway.

In addition to that movement, the Moon also moves closer to and further from the Earth over the course of a year due to its elliptical orbit. This makes it appear to change size slightly.

Except for the Moon’s phases, such effects aren’t immediately obvious from one night to the next. But when assembled into a high-resolution video using images and laser altimetry data maps from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the monthly motions of the Moon become incredibly clear!

This video shows all the views of the Moon for the entire year of 2012.

Thanks to Phil Plait of Discover Magazine’s Bad Astronomy blog for adding the music and descriptions to the GSFC’s amazing video. What a marvelous night for a Moon dance!

See the current Moon phase and the original video on the Goddard Space Flight Center’s “Dial-A-Moon” page here.

Video: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Visualization Studio. Notations by Phil Plait. Music by Kevin MacLeod/incomptech.com.

First Quarter Moon

Flying Across the Moon

[/caption]

The first quarter moon is actually the third phase of the moon each cycle. In the Northern Hemisphere during this phase, the right hand 50% of the moon is visible during the afternoon and the early part of the night. In the Southern Hemisphere the left hand 50% of the moon can be seen. This lunar phase follows the new moon and the waxing crescent.

A lunar phase is the appearance of an illuminated portion of the moon as seen by an observer. For this article the observer is always on Earth. The lunar phases vary in a definite cycle as the moon orbits the Earth. The phases change based on the changing relative positions of the Earth, moon, and Sun. Half of the moon’s surface is always illuminated by the Sun, but the portion of the illuminated hemisphere that is visible to an observer can vary from 100%(full moon) to 0%(new moon). The only exception is during a lunar eclipse. The boundary between the light and dark portions of the moon is called the terminator.

There are 8 moon phases. These phases are: new moon, waxing crescent, first quarter moon, waxing gibbous, full moon, waning gibbous, last quarter moon, and waning crescent. The phases progress in the same manner each month. Earlier, it was mentioned that the lunar phase depends on the position of the Earth, moon, and Sun. During the new moon the Earth and Sun are on the opposite side of the moon. During the full moon the Earth and Sun are on the same sides of the Moon. The occasions when the Earth, Sun, and moon are in a straight line(new and full moon) are called syzygies.

When the moon passes between Earth and the Sun during a new moon, you might think that its shadow would cause a solar eclipse. On the other hand, you might think that during a full moon the Earth’s shadow would cause a lunar eclipse. The plane of the moon’s orbit around the Earth is tilted by about five degrees compared to the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun(called the ecliptic plane). This tilt prevents monthly eclipses. An eclipse can only occur when the moon is either new or full, but it also has to be positioned near the intersection of the Earth’s orbital plane about the Sun and the Moon’s orbit plane about the Earth, so there are between four and seven eclipses in a calendar year.

The first quarter moon is only one of eight lunar phases. You should research them all for a better understanding of the Earth/Moon system.

We have written many articles about the phases of the moon for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the 8 phases of the moon, and here’s an article about the moon phases for 2010.

If you’d like more info on the Moon, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on the Moon, and here’s a link to NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science page.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Moon. Listen here, Episode 113: The Moon, Part 1.

References:
http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/phonedrmarc/2004_march.shtml
http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/questions/question3.html