Watch Rotating Horns of Venus at Dawn

Venus inferior conjunction
Venus inferior conjunction
Venus just 10.5 hours before inferior conjunction on March 25th. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@Shahgazer)

Have you seen it yet? An old friend greeted us on an early morning run yesterday as we could easily spy brilliant Venus in the dawn, just three days after inferior conjunction this past Saturday on March 25th.

This was an especially wide pass, as the planet crossed just over eight degrees (that’s 16 Full Moon diameters!) north of the Sun. We once managed to see Venus with the unaided eye on the very day of inferior conjunction back in 1998 from the high northern latitudes of the Chena Flood Channel just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.

The planet was a slender 59.4” wide, 1% illuminated crescent during this past weekend’s passage, and the wide pass spurred many advanced imagers to hunt for the slim crescent in the daytime sky. Of course, such a feat is challenging near the dazzling daytime Sun. Safely blocking the Sun out of view and being able to precisely point your equipment is key in this endeavor. A deep blue, high contrast sky helps, as well. Still, many Universe Today readers rose to the challenge of chronicling the horns of the slender crescent Venus as they rotated ’round the limb and the nearby world moved once again from being a dusk to dawn object.

Venus rotating horns
A daily sequence showing the ‘Horns of Venus’ rotate as it approaches inferior conjunction. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@ShahGazer)

The orbit of Venus is tilted 3.4 degrees with respect to the Earth, otherwise, we’d get a transit of the planet like we did on June 5-6th, 2012 once about every 584 days, instead of having to wait again until next century on December 10th, 2117.

The joint NASA/European Space Agency’s SOlar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) mission also spied the planet this past weekend as it just grazed the 15 degree wide field of view of its Sun-observing LASCO C3 camera:

Venus SOHO
The glow of Venus (arrowed) just barely bleeding over into the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera. Credit: SOHO/NASA/LASCO

Venus kicks off April as a 58” wide, 3% illuminated crescent and ends the month at 37” wide, fattening up to 28% illumination. On closest approach, the planet presents the largest apparent planetary disk possible as seen from the Earth. Can you see the horns? They’re readily readily apparent even in a low power pair of hunting binoculars. The coming week is a great time to try and see a crescent Venus… with the naked eye. Such an observation is notoriously difficult, and right on the edge of possibility for those with keen eyesight.

One problem for seasoned observers is that we know beforehand that (spoiler alert) that the Horns of Venus, like the Moon, always point away from the direction of the Sun.

True Story: a five year old girl at a public star party once asked me “why does that ‘star’ look like a tiny Moon” (!) This was prior to looking at the planet through a telescope. Children generally have sharper eyes than adults, as the lenses of our corneas wear down and yellow from ultraviolet light exposure over the years.

Still, there are tantalizing historical records that suggest that ancient cultures such as the Babylonians knew something of the true crescent nature of Venus in pre-telescopic times as well.

The Babylonian frieze of Kudurru Melishipak on display at the Louvre, depicting the Sun Moon and Venus. According to some interpretations, the goddess Ishtar (Venus) is also associated with a crescent symbol… possibly lending credence to the assertion that ancient Babylonian astronomers knew something of the phases of the planet from direct observation. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Image in the Public Domain.

Another fun challenge in the coming months is attempting to see Venus in the daytime. This is surprisingly easy, once you know exactly where to look for it. A nearby crescent Moon is handy, as occurs on April 23rd, May 22nd, and June 20th.

Daytime Venus
Venus (arrowed) near the daytime Moon. Photo by author.

Strangely enough, the Moon is actually darker than dazzling Venus in terms of surface albedo. The ghostly daytime Moon is just larger and easier to spot. Many historical ‘UFO’ sightings such as a ‘dazzling light seen near the daytime Moon’ by the startled residents of Saint-Denis, France on the morning on January 13th, 1589 were, in fact, said brilliant planet.

The Moon near Venus on May 22nd. Credit: Stellarium.

Venus can appear startlingly bright to even a seasoned observer. We’ve seen the planet rise as a shimmering ember against a deep dark twilight sky from high northern latitudes. Air traffic controllers have tried in vain to ‘hail’ Venus on more than one occasion, and India once nearly traded shots with China along its northern border in 2012, mistaking a bright conjunction of Jupiter and Venus for spy drones.

The third brightest object in the sky behind the Sun and the Moon, Venus is even bright enough to cast a shadow as seen from a dark sky site, something that can be more readily recorded photographically.

Watch our nearest planetary neighbor long enough, and it will nearly repeat the same pattern for a given apparition. This is known as the eight year cycle of Venus, and stems from the fact that 13 Venusian orbits (8x 224.8 days) very nearly equals eight Earth years.

Follow Venus through the dawn in 2017, and it will eventually form a right triangle with the Earth and the Sun on June 3rd, reaching what is known as greatest elongation. This can vary from 47.2 to 45.4 degrees from the Sun, and this year reaches 45.9 degrees elongation in June. The planet then reaches half phase known as dichotomy around this date, though observed versus theoretical dichotomy can vary by three days. The cause of this phenomenon is thought to be the refraction of light in Venus’ dense atmosphere, coupled with observer bias due to the brilliance of Venus itself. When do you see it?

Also, keep an eye out for the ghostly glow on the night-side of Venus, known as Ashen Light. Long thought to be another trick of the eye, there’s good evidence to suggest that this long reported effect actually has a physical basis, though Venus has no large reflecting moon nearby… how could this be? The leading candidate is now thought to be air-glow radiating from the cooling nighttime side of the planet.

Cloud enshrouded Venus held on to its secrets, right up until the Space Age less than a century ago… some observers theorized that the nighttime glow on Venus was due to aurorae, volcanoes or even light pollution from Venusian cities (!). This also fueled spurious sightings of the alleged Venusian moon Neith right up through the 19th century.

Venus should also put in a showing 34 degrees west of the Sun shining at magnitude -4 during the August 21st, 2017 total solar eclipse. Follow that planet, as it makes a complex meet up with Mars, Mercury, and the Moon in late September of this year.

More to come!

-Read about planets, occultations, comets and more for the year in our 101 Astronomical Events for 2017, out as a free e-book from Universe Today.

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.


Astrophotos: Venus at Inferior Conjunction

Venus has now gone from being that bright “star” you’ve been seeing around sunset to later this month being the bright object you’ll see in the early morning pre-dawn hours. On January 11, Venus passed between Earth and the Sun in what is known as inferior conjunction. We challenged our readers to try and capture it, and Shahrin Ahmad in Malaysia nabbed the tiny crescent Venus about 8 hours before inferior conjunction, in what he said was a personal record!

“Around 12.30 p.m. local noon time, there was a brief of good seeing, and probably the best one so far,” Shah said via email. “Suits nicely as a parting shot. After that the sky seeing began to deteriorate really fast!”

Venus was about 0.4% illuminated and 5.1 deg from the Sun.

“Even without stretching the original photo, we can easily see how the crescent has reach beyond 180 degrees around Venus,” he said. “This is the closest Venus I’ve ever imaged.”

You can see Shah (and his telescope) on the Virtual Star Party this week, talking about his Venus observations.

But take a look at this: here’s a great series of images from Paul Stewart from Timaru, New Zealand:

Venus inferior conjunction timeline from January 7 to 13th, missing January 12 due to clouds. Credit and copyright: Paul Stewart.
Venus inferior conjunction timeline from January 7 to 13th, missing January 12 due to clouds. Credit and copyright: Paul Stewart.

Wow! That’s exceptional work! You can see more of Paul’s astro-work at his website, Upside Down Astronomer.

Thanks to both Shah and Paul for sharing their photos!

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Astro-Challenge: Nabbing Venus… at Inferior Conjunction

Residents of high northern latitudes can take heart this frigid January: this coming weekend offers a chance to replicate a unique astronomical sighting.

Veteran sky watcher Bob King recently wrote a post for Universe Today describing what observers can expect from the planet Venus for the last few weeks of this current evening apparition leading  up to Venus’s passage between the Earth and the Sun on January 11th. Like so many other readers, we’ve been holding a nightly vigil to see when the last date will be that we can spot the fleeing world… and some great pics have been pouring in.

But did you know that when the conditions are just right, that you can actually spy Venus at the moment of inferior conjunction?

No, we’re not talking about a rare transit of Venus as last occurred on June 6th, 2012, when Venus crossed the disk of the Sun as seen from our Earthly perspective… you’ll have to wait until 2117 to see that occur again. What we’re talking about is a passage of Venus high above or below the solar disk, when spying it while the Sun sits just below the horizon might just be possible.

The disk of Venus at inferior conjunction. Simulation created by the author using Starry Night.
The disk of Venus at inferior conjunction. Simulation created by the author using Stellarium.

Not all inferior conjunctions of Venus are created equal. The planet’s orbit is tilted 3 degrees with respect to our own and can thus pass a maximum of eight degrees north or south of the Sun. Venus last did this on inferior conjunction in 2009 and will once again pass a maximum distance north of the Sun in 2017. For the southern hemisphere, the red letter years are 2007, and next year in 2015.

You’ll note that the above periods mark out an 8-year cycle, a period after which a roughly similar apparition of the planet Venus repeats. This is because Venus takes just over 224 days to complete one orbit, and 13 orbits of Venus very nearly equals 8 Earth years.

And while said northern maximum is still three years away, this week’s inferior conjunction is close at five degrees from the solar limb. The best prospects to see Venus at or near inferior conjunction occur for observers “North of the 60”. We accomplished this feat two Venusian 8-year cycles ago during the inferior conjunction of January 16th, 1998 from latitude 65 degrees north just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. We set up on the Chena Flood Channel, assuring as low and as flat a horizon as possible… and we kept the engine of our trusty Jeep Wrangler idling as a refuge from the -40 degrees Celsius temperatures!

A daytime Venus just over five days from inferior conjunction. Credit
A 1.3% illuminated daytime Venus just over five days from inferior conjunction. Credit Shahrin Ahmad

It took us several frigid minutes of sweeping the horizon with binoculars before we could pick up the dusky dot of Venus through the low atmospheric murk and pervasive ice fog. We could just glimpse Venus unaided afterward, once we knew exactly where to look!

This works because the ecliptic is at a relatively shallow enough angle to the horizon as seen from the high Arctic that Venus gets its maximum ~five degree “boost” above the horizon.

A word of warning is also in order not to attempt this sighting while the dazzling (and potentially eye damaging) Sun is above the horizon. Start sweeping the horizon for Venus about 30 minutes before local sunrise, with the limb of the Sun safely below the horizon.

Venus presents a disk 1’ 02” across as seen from Earth during inferior conjunction, the largest of any planet and the only one that can appear larger than an arc minute in size. Ironically, both Venus and Earth reach perihelion this month. Said disk is, however, only 0.4% illuminated and very near the theoretical edge of visibility known as the Danjon Limit. And although the technical visual magnitude of Venus at inferior conjunction is listed as -3.1, expect that illumination scattered across that razor thin crescent to be more like magnitude -0.6 due to atmospheric extinction.

The mid-January passage of Venus through the field of view of SOHO's LASCO C3 imager. Field orientation is set for January 7th. Created using Starry Nite Software.
The mid-January passage of Venus through the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 imager. Field orientation is set for January 7th. Created using Starry Nite Software.

Are you one of the +99% of the world’s citizens that doesn’t live in the high Arctic? You can still watch the passage of Venus from the relative warmth of your home online, via the Solar Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) vantage point in space. SOHO sits at the sunward L1 point between the Earth and the Sun and has been monitoring Sol with a battery on instruments ever since its launch in 1995. A great side benefit of this is that SOHO also catches sight of planets and the occasional comet that strays near the Sun in its LASCO C2 and C3 cameras. Venus will begin entering the 15 degree wide field of view for SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera on January 7th, and you’ll be able to trace it all the way back out until January 14th.

Venus post solar transit as seen in SOHO's LASCO C3 imager. Credit-ESA/NASA
Venus post solar transit as seen in SOHO’s LASCO C3 imager. Credit-ESA/NASA

From there on out, Venus will enter the early morning sky. When is the first date that you can catch it from your latitude with binoculars and /or the naked eye? Venus spends most of the remainder of 2014 in the dawn, reaching greatest elongation 46.6 degrees west of the Sun on March 22nd, 2014 and is headed back towards superior conjunction on the farside of the Sun on October 25th, 2014. But there’s lots more Venusian action in 2014 in store…. more to come!