Venus Returns to the Dusk Sky

Venus returns  – The changing phases of Venus, from the 2013 apparition. Credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@Shahgazer)

Where have all the planets gone? The end of February 2018 sees the three naked eye outer planets – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — hiding in the dawn. It takes an extra effort to brave the chill of a February morning, for sure. The good news is, the two inner planets – Mercury and Venus – begin favorable dusk apparitions this week, putting on a fine sunset showing in March.

Venus in 2018: Venus begins the month of March as a -3.9 magnitude, 10” disk emerging from behind the Sun. Venus is already over 12 degrees east of the Sun this week, as it begins its long chase to catch up to the Earth. Venus always emerges from behind the Sun in the dusk, lapping the Earth about eight months later as it passes through inferior conjunction between the Sun and the Earth as it ventures into the dusk sky.

Follow that planet, as Venus reaches greatest elongation at 45.9 degrees east of the Sun on August 17th. Venus occupies the apex of a right triangle on this date, with the Earth at the end of one vertice, and the Sun at the end of the other.

Not all elongations of Mercury or Venus are equal, but depend on the seasonal angle of the ecliptic, and whether they occur near aphelion or perihelion. Credit: Dave Dickinson

Mercury joins the fray in early March, as the fleeting innermost world races up to meet Venus in the dusk. March 4th is a great date to check Mercury off of your life list, as the -1.2 magnitude planet passes just 66′ – just over a degree, or twice the span of a Full Moon – from Venus. Mercury reaches greatest elongation 18.4 degrees east of the Sun on March 15th.

And the Moon makes three on the evening of March 18th, as Mercury, Venus and the slim waxing crescent Moon form a line nine degrees long.

The Moon, Venus and Mercury – looking west at dusk on March 18th. Credit: Stellarium

It’s a bit of a cosmic irony: Venus, the closest planet to the Earth, is also eternally shrouded in clouds and appears featureless at the eyepiece. The most notable feature Venus exhibits are its phases, similar to the Moon’s. Things get interesting as Venus reaches half phase near greatest elongation. After that, the disk of Venus swells in size but thins down to a slender crescent. Venus’s orbit is tilted 3.4 degrees relative to the ecliptic, and on some years, you can follow it right through inferior conjunction from the dusk to the dawn sky. Unfortunately, this also means that Venus usually misses transiting the disk of the Sun, as it last did on June 5-6th, 2012, and won’t do again until just under a century from now on December 10-11th, 2117.

Small consolation prize: Mercury, a much more frequent solar transiter, will do so again next year on November 11-12th, 2019.

Amateur astronomers have, however, managed to tease out detail from the Venusian cloudtops using ultraviolet filters. And check out this amazing recent image of Venus courtesy of the Japanese Space Agency’s Akatsuki spacecraft:

Venus in the ultraviolet courtesy of JAXA’s Akatsuki spacecraft. Credit: JAXA/Akatsuki/ISAS/DARTS/Damia Bouic

It’s one of our favorite astro-challenges. Can you see Venus in the daytime? Once you’ve seen it, it’s surprisingly easily to spy… the main difficulty is to get your eyes to focus in on it without any other references against a blank sky. The crescent Moon makes a great visual aid in this quest; although the Moon’s reflectivity or albedo is actually much lower than Venus’s, it’s larger apparent size in the sky makes it stand out. Key upcoming dates to see Venus near the Moon around greatest elongation are April 17th, May 17th, June 16th, July 15th, and Aug 14th.

Apparitions of Venus also follow a predictable eight year cycle. This occurs because 13 orbits of Venus very nearly equals eight orbits of the Earth. For example, Venus will resume visiting the Pleiades star cluster during the dusk 2020 apparition, just like it did back before 2012.

Phenomena of Venus

When does Venus appear half illuminated to you? This stage is known as dichotomy, and its actual observed point can often be several days off from its theoretical arrival. Also keep an eye out for the Ashen Light of Venus, a faint illumination of the planet’s night side during crescent phase, similar to the familiar sight seen on the crescent Moon. Unlike the Moon, however, Venus has no nearby body to illuminate its nighttime side… What’s going on here? Is this just the psychological effect of the brain filling in what the eye sees when it looks at the dazzling curve of the crescent Venus, or is it something real? Long reported by observers, a 2014 study suggests that a nascent air-glow or aurora may persist on the broiling night side of Venus.

All thoughts to ponder, as you follow Venus emerging into the dusk sky this March.

Astro-Challenge: Watch the Moon Occult Venus in the Daytime

The Moon meets Venus on February 26th, 2014. Image credit and copyright: Konstantinos Spanos

The year 2015 saved one of the best astronomical events for last, as the waning crescent Moon occults (passes in front of) the planet Venus as seen from North America on Monday, December 7th.

This is the final of seven naked eye occultations of planets by the Moon in 2015, three of which involve Venus. It’s also the best of the year, well positioned for North America. Continue reading “Astro-Challenge: Watch the Moon Occult Venus in the Daytime”

This Comparison of Comet 67/P With Other Solar System Bodies Will Blow Your Mind

There’s darkness out there in the cold corners of the solar system.

And we’re not talking about a Lovecraftian darkness, the kind that would summon Cthulhu himself.  We’re talking of celestial bodies that are, well. So black, they make a Spinal Tap album cover blinding by comparison.

We recently came across the above true color comparison of Comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko adjusted for true reflectivity contrasted with other bodies in the solar system. 67/P is definitely in the “none more black” (to quote Nigel Tufnel) category as compared to, well, nearly everything.

Welcome to the wonderful world of albedo. Bob King wrote a great article last year discussing the albedo of Comet 67/P. The true albedo (or lack thereof) of 67/P as revealed by Rosetta’s NAVCAM continues to astound us. Are all comets this black close up? After all, we’re talking about those same brilliant celestial wonders that can sometimes be seen in the daytime, and are the crimson harbingers of regal change in The Game of Thrones, right?

There was also a great discussion of the dark realms of 67/P in a recent SETI Talk:

As with many things in the universe, it’s all a matter of perspective. If you live in the U.S. Northeast and are busy like we were earlier today digging yourself out from Snowmageddon 2015, then you were enjoying a planetary surface with a high albedo much more akin to Enceladus pictured above. Except, of course, you’d be shoveling methane and carbon dioxide-laced snow on the Saturnian moon… Ice, snow and cloud cover can make a world shinny white and highly reflective. Earthshine on the dark limb of the crescent Moon can even vary markedly depending on the amount of cloud and snow cover on the Earth that’s currently rotated moonward.

Earthshine or the 'Old Moon in the New Moon's arms' from earlier this week. Photo by author.
A brilliant Earthshine, or the ‘Old Moon in the New Moon’s arms’ from earlier last week. Photo by author.

To confound this, apparent magnitude over an extended object is diffused over its surface area, making the coma of a comet or a nebula appear fainter than it actually is. Engineers preparing for planetary encounters must account for changes in light conditions, or their cameras may just record… nothing.

For example, out by Pluto, Charon, and friends, the Sun is only 1/1600th as bright as seen here on sunny Earth. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will have to adjust for the low light levels accordingly during its historic flyby this July. On the plus side, Pluto seems to have a respectable albedo of 50% to 65%, and may well turn out to look like Neptune’s large moon, Triton.

Triton as imaged by Voyager 2: a dead ringer for Pluto? Credit: NASA/JPL.
Triton as imaged by Voyager 2: a dead ringer for Pluto? Credit: NASA/JPL.

And albedo has a role in heat absorption and reflection as well, in a phenomenon known as global dimming. The ivory snows of Enceladus have an albedo of over 95%, while gloomy Comet 67/P has an albedo of about 5%, less than that of flat black paint. A common practice here in Aroostook County Maine is to take fireplace ashes and scatter them across an icy driveway. What you’re doing is simply lowering the surface albedo and increasing the absorption of solar energy to help break up the snow and ice on a sunny day.

A high albedo snow cover blanketed New England earlier this week! Photo by author.
A high albedo snow cover blanketed New England earlier this week! Photo by author.

Ever manage to see Venus in the daytime?  We like to point out the Cytherean world in the daytime sky to folks whenever possible, often using the nearby Moon as a guide. Most folks are amazed at how easy this daytime feat of visual athletics actually is, owing to the fact that the cloud tops of Venus actually have a higher albedo of 90%, versus the Moon’s murky 8 to 12%.

Venus (upper left) by daylight. Photo by author.
Venus (upper left) by daylight. Photo by author.

Apollo 12 command module pilot Richard Gordon remarked that astronauts Al Bean and Pete Conrad looked like they’d been “playing in a coal bin” on returning from the surface of the Moon. And in case you’re wondering, Apollo astronauts reported that moondust smelled like ‘burnt gunpowder’ once they’d unsuited.

The surface of the Moon closeup: darker than you think! Credit: Apollo 12/NASA.
The surface of the Moon closeup: darker than you think! Credit: Apollo 12/NASA.

Magnitude, global dimming and planetary albedo may even play a role in SETI as well, as we begin to image Earthlike exoplanets… will our first detection of ET be the glow of their cities on the nightside of their homeworld? Does light pollution pervade the cosmos?

And a grey cosmos awaits interstellar explorers as well. Forget Captain Kirk chasing Khan through a splashy, multi-hued nebula: most are of the light grey to faded green varieties close up. Through a telescope, most nebulae are devoid of color. It’s only when a long time exposure is completed that colors too faint to see with the naked eye emerge.

All strange thoughts to consider as we scout out the dark corners of the solar system. Will the Philae lander reawaken as perihelion for Comet 67/P approaches on August 13th, 2015? Will astronauts someday have to navigate over the dark surface of a comet?

I can’t help but think as I look at the duck-like structure of 67/P that one day, those two great lobes will probably separate in a grand outburst of activity. Heck, Comet 17P/Holmes is undergoing just such an outburst now — one of the best it has generated since 2007 — though it’s still below +10th magnitude. How I’d love to get a look at Comet 17P/Holmes up close, and see just what’s going on!


Watch Venus as it Wanders Through the Dawn in 2014

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!


An Incredible Time-lapse of Venus Passing Through Inferior Conjunction

Some of the most amazing celestial sights are hidden from our view in the daytime sky. Or are they? We recently challenged readers to try and follow the planet Venus through inferior conjunction as it passed between the Earth and the Sun on January 11th. Unlike the previous pass on June 6th, 2012 when Venus made its last transit of the Sun for the 21st century, the 2014 solar conjunction offered an outstanding chance to trace Venus’s path just five degrees from the Sun from the dusk and into the dawn sky.

Expert astrophotographers Shahrin Ahmad based in Sri Damansara, Malaysia and Paul Stewart observing from New Zealand took up that daily challenge as Venus neared the limb of the Sun, with amazing results. Now, Shahrin has also produced an amazing time-lapse sequence of Venus passing through inferior conjunction.

You can actually see the illuminated “horns” of Venus as they thin, extend, and rotate around the limb as the planet passes the Sun.

And it’s what’s more incredible is that the capture was completed in the daytime. But such a feat isn’t for the unskilled. Shahrin told Universe Today of the special safety precautions he had to take to acquire Venus so close to the Sun:

“Since Venus was getting closer each day towards conjunction, I found it far too dangerous to find visually, either using the main telescope or the finderscope.”

Instead, Shahrin relies on computerized software named Cartes du Ciel to drive his Skywatcher EQ6 mount and pinpoint Venus in the daytime sky.

“The sky in Kuala Lumpur is never clear from here, thus it rarely appears dark blue, making it almost impossible to spot Venus visually, especially when it is less than 10 degrees from the Sun.”

Shahrin elaborated further on his special solar safety precautions:

“I always start with all covers in place and the solar filter on the main telescope. I will slew the telescope to the Sun, make some slight repositioning adjustments, and then synchronize the telescope to the new position. After ensuring the Sun is visible and centered on the computer screen, I slew to Venus. Once the mount has stopped in position, I remove the solar filter and replace it with a makeshift cardboard extender mounted on the existing dew-shield. This ensures that any direct sunlight is totally blocked from entering the optics.”

Shahrin notes that 90% of the time, Venus with appear on the computer screen after aligning. Otherwise, a brief spiral search of the field will slide it into view.

Shahrin observes from his ShahGazer Observatory, a roll-off-roof observatory just outside of Kuala Lumpur. He used the Skywatcher 120ED refractor pictured for the captures, with a 2x Barlow lens to achieve a focal length of 1800mm. Shahrin’s main camera is a QHY CCD IMG132e, and the rig is mounted on a Skywatcher EQ6.

Credit: Shahrin Ahmad.
A closeup of Sharin’s barlow and camera rig. Credit: Shahrin Ahmad.

“The experience of being able to track Venus approaching inferior conjunction over the Sun afterwards is exhilarating,” Shahrin told Universe Today. “It felt like watching and waiting for a total eclipse of the Sun, but in slow motion!”

Shahrin also counts himself lucky to have had a string of clear days leading up to and after inferior conjunction.

Shahrin’s capture of Venus 5 degrees from the Sun just 8 hours before inferior conjunction may also be a record. That’s a closer apparent separation than our visual sighting of Venus 7 hours and 45 minutes after inferior conjunction on January 16th 1998 as seen from North Pole Alaska, when the planet passed 5.5 degrees from the limb of the Sun.

“I’ve also noticed that in some of the photos, we can see a slight ‘glint’ of sunshine on part of Venus’ atmosphere,” Shahrin noted to Universe Today. “(This sighting) was actually confirmed by the RASC Edmonton Centre in Canada via their Twitter feed.”

An amazing capture, indeed. Venus is now back in the realm of visibility for us mere mortal backyard observers low in the dawn sky, shining at a brilliant magnitude -4.3. Expect it to vault up in a hurry for northern hemisphere observers as the favorable angle of the ecliptic will give it a boost in the dawn. Venus is also headed towards a spectacular 0.2 degree conjunction with Jupiter this summer on August 18th: expect UFO sightings to rise correspondingly.  The Indian Army even briefly mistook the pair for Chinese spy drones early last year.

The waning crescent Moon approaches Venus on the morning of January 28th, 2014. Created using Stellarium.
The waning crescent Moon approaches Venus on the morning of January 28th, 2014. Created using Stellarium.

Venus will spend most of 2014 in the dawn sky and is headed for superior conjunction on October 25th, 2014. Venus spent a similar span in the dawn for the majority 2006, and will do so again in 2022. It’s all part of the 8-year cycle of Venus, a span over which apparitions of the planet roughly repeat. And the next shot we’ll have at inferior conjunction?  That’ll be on August 15th, 2015 for favoring the southern hemisphere and March 25th, 2017 once again favoring the northern, when the planet very nearly passes as far from the Sun as it can appear at inferior conjunction at 8 degrees.

Congrats to Shahrin on his amazing capture!

-Follow the stargazing adventures of Sharin Ahmad on Google+ and as @shahgazer on Twitter

-Got pictures of Venus? Send ‘em in to Universe Today.