Can Lunar Earthshine Reveal Ashen Light on Venus?

A recent celestial event provided a fascinating look at a long-standing astronomical mystery.

Is the ‘ashen light of Venus’ a real phenomena or an illusion?

On October 8th, the waning crescent Moon occulted (passed in front of) the bright planet Venus for observers in the southern hemisphere. And while such occurrences aren’t at all rare—the Moon occults Venus 3 times in 2015, and 25 times in this decade alone worldwide—the particulars were exceptional for observers in Australia, with a -4.5 magnitude, 40% illuminated Venus 30” in size emerging under dark skies 45 degrees west of the Sun from behind the dark limb of the Moon.

David and Joan Dunham rose to the challenge, and caught an amazing sequence featuring a brilliant Venus reappearing from behind the Moon as seen from the Australian Outback. When I first watched the video posted on You Tube by International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA) North American coordinator Brad Timerson, I was a bit perplexed, until I realized we were actually seeing the dark nighttime side of a waning Moon, with the bright crescent just out of view. Venus fully emerges in just under a minute after first appearing, and its -4th magnitude visage shines like a spotlight when revealed in its full glory.

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A simulation of Venus on the limb of the Moon on October 8th. Image credit: Stellarium

“Joan and I observed the reappearance of Venus from behind the dark side of the 15% sunlit waning crescent Moon, from a dark and wide parking area on the east side of the Stuart Highway that afforded a low (1-2 degree) horizon to the east,” Dunham said. “Since the past observations of ashen light were visual, I decided that it would be best to use the 25mm eyepiece with the 8-inch visually rather than just make a redundant video. Neither the real-time visual observation, nor close visual inspection of the video recording, showed any sign of the dark side of Venus.”

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Dunham’s ‘box scope’ imaging set up Image credit: David Dunham

We’ve written about the strange puzzle of ashen light on the nighttime side of Venus previously.

Reports by visual observers of ashen light on the dark limb of Venus over the centuries remain a mystery. On the crescent Moon, it’s easy to explain, as the Earth illuminates the nighttime side of our natural satellite; no such nearby illumination source exists in the case of Venus. Ashen light on Venus is either an illusion—a trick of the dazzling brilliance of a crescent Venus fooling the eye of the observer—or a real, and not as yet fully described phenomenon. Over the years, suggestions have included: lightning, airglow, volcanism, and aurora. A good prime candidate in the form of an ‘auroral nightglow” was proposed by New Mexico State University researchers in 2014. 19th century astronomers even proposed we might be seeing the lights of Venusian cities, or perhaps forest fires!

Could we ever separate the bright crescent of Venus from its nighttime side? A lunar occultation, such as the October 8th event provides just such a fleeting opportunity.  Though it’s hard to discern in the video, Dunham also watched the event visually through the telescope, and noted that, in his words, “the dark side of Venus remains dark,” with no brief appearance prior to sighting the crescent shining through the lunar valleys.

A tentative light curve made by Mr. Timerson seems to support this assertion, as the appearance of Venus quickly over-saturates the view:

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A rough light curve of the event. Photon counts are along the vertical axis, each tick mark along the horizontal equals one second. Image credit: Brad Timerson

Of course, this is far from conclusive, but seems to support the idea that the ashen light of Venus noted by ground observers is largely an optical illusion. Not all occultations of Venus by the Moon are created equal, and the best ones to test this method occur when Venus is less than half illuminated and greater than 40 degrees from the Sun against a relatively dark sky. Compounding problems, the ‘dark’ limb of the Moon has a brightness of its own, thanks to Earthshine. Dunham notes that observers in southern Alaska may have another shot at seeing this same phenomenon on December 7th, when the 13% illuminated crescent Moon occults a -4.2 magnitude 69% illuminated Venus, 42 degrees west of the Sun… the rest of North and South America will see this occultation in the daytime, still an interesting catch.

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The occultation footprint for the Dec 7 event. The dashed lines indicate where the event happens during daylight. Image credit: Occult 4.1

Looking at future occultations, there’s an intriguing possibility to hunt for the ashen light on the evening of October 10th, 2029, when then Moon occults a 57% illuminated Venus against dark skies for observers along the U.S. West Coast. Incidentally, a dawn occultation provides a better circumstance than a dusk one, as Venus always reemerges from the Moon’s dark limb when it’s waning. It enters the same when waxing, perhaps allowing for observer bias.

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A simulation of the 2029 event. Image credit: Stellarium

Can’t wait for December? The Moon also occults the bright star Aldebaran on October 29th for Europe and North America on November 26th near Full phase… the good folks at the Virtual Telescope will carry the October event live.

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The occultation footprint for the 2029 event. Image credit: Occult 4.1

For now, the ashen light of Venus remains an intriguing mystery. Perhaps, an airborne observation could extend the appearance of Venus during an occultation, or maybe the recently announced Discovery-class mission to Venus could observe the night side of the planet for an Earthly glow… if nothing else, it’s simply amazing to watch the two brightest objects in the nighttime sky come together.

Catch Mercury Brushing Past Venus in a Spectacular Dusk ‘Quasi-Conjunction’ This Week

Missing Venus? The third brightest natural object in the heavens returns to prime time dusk skies in 2015 after being absent and lingering in the dawn for most of 2014. But there’s another reason to hunt down the Cytherean world this week, as elusive Mercury chases after it low in the dusk. If you’ve never seen Mercury for yourself, now is a great time to try, using brilliant Venus as a guide.

The circumstances surrounding this pairing are intriguing. We have to admit, we missed this close conjunction whilst filtering through research for the Top 101 Astronomical Events for 2015 due to those very same unique attributes until an astute reader of Universe Today pointed it out.

December 31st Bob King
Venus and Mercury setting over the Duluth, Minnesota skyline on December 31st. Credit and copyright: Bob King.

On the evening of January 5th, Venus shines at magnitude -3.3 and sits about 18 degrees east of the Sun in dusk skies.  You’ll have a narrow window of opportunity to nab Venus, as it’ll sit only 10 degrees above the southwestern horizon as seen from latitude 40 degrees north about an hour after sunset. Make sure you have a clear, uncluttered horizon, and start sweeping the field with binoculars about half an hour after sunset.

Do you see a tiny point of light about a degree and a half to Venus’s lower right? That’s Mercury, just beginning its first dusk apparition of seven for 2015, the most possible in a calendar year. Shining at -0.7 magnitude, Mercury is currently about 8 times fainter than Venus, and drops to +1.4 magnitude by late January.

If you watch the pair on successive evenings, you’ll see Mercury — aptly named after the fleet-footed Roman god — racing to rapidly close the gap. Mercury crosses the one degree separation threshold from January 8th through January 12th, and sits just 39’ — slightly larger than the apparent size of the Full Moon — right around 7:00 PM EST/Midnight Universal Time on January 10th, favoring dusk along eastern North America just a few hours prior.

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Venus and Mercury as seen from Venezuela on January 2nd. Credit and copyright: Jose Rozada.

This also means that you’ll be able to squeeze both Mercury and Venus into the same low power telescopic field of view. They’ll both even show the same approximate gibbous phase, with Venus presenting a 10.5” sized 95% illuminated disk, and Mercury subtending 6” in apparent diameter with a 74% illuminated visage. Venus will seem to be doing its very own mocking impersonation of the Earth, appearing to have a single large moon… Neith, the spurious pseudo-moon of Venus lives!

One curious facet of this week’s conjunction is the fact that Venus and Mercury approach, but never quite meet each other in right ascension. We call such a near miss a “quasi-conjunction.” This is the closest pairing of Venus and Mercury since 2012, though you have to go all the way back to 2005 for one that was easily observable, and the last true quasi-conjunction was in October 2001. Miss this week’s event, and you’ll have to wait until May 13th 2016 to catch Mercury — fresh off of transiting the Sun a week earlier — passing just 26’ from Venus only 6.5 degrees west of the Sun. This is unobservable from your backyard, but SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera’s 15 degree wide field of view will have a front row cyber-seat.

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The dusk path of Venus through early 2015. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

In 2015, Venus will become ever more prominent in the dusk sky before reaching greatest elongation 45.4 degrees east of the Sun on June 6th, 2015. The angle of the January ecliptic at dusk is currently shoving Mercury and Venus southward for northern hemisphere observers, though that’ll change dramatically as we head towards the March equinox. Venus reaches solar conjunction sans transit (which last occurred in 2012 and won’t happen again til 2117 A.D.) on August 15th before heading towards its second elongation of 2015 on October 26th in the dawn sky.  And don’t forget, it’s possible to see Venus in the daytime as it approaches greatest elongation. Venus is also occulted by the Moon 4 times in 2015, including a fine daytime occultation on December 7th for North America.

Mercury through January 2015.
The path of Mercury through January 2015. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

This month, Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation on January 14th at 18.9 degrees east of the Sun.  Mercury begins retrograde movement later this month — one of the prime reasons this week’s conjunction is quasi — before resuming direct (eastward) motion as seen from our terrestrial vantage point. Though it may seem convenient to blame your earthly woes on Mercury in retrograde as astrologers will have you believe, this is just an illusion of planetary orbital motion. And speaking of motion, Mercury transits the Sun next year on May 9th.

John Barantine
Venus and Mercury as seen from Tucson, Arizona on January 3rd. Credit and copyright: John Barentine (@JohnBarentine)

Mercury and Venus factor in to space exploration in 2015 as well. NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft wraps up its successful mission  in orbit around Mercury in a few months, and the Japanese Space Agency takes another crack at putting its Akatsuki spacecraft in orbit around Venus this coming November.

So don’t fear the bone-chilling January temps (or Mercury in retrograde) but do get out there these coming evenings and check out the fine celestial waltz being performed by the solar system’s two innermost worlds.