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

 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.

Stellarium
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!

Watch the Moon Meet Venus in the Dawn this Wednesday

Are you ready for some lunar versus planetary occultation action? One of the best events for 2014 occurs early this Wednesday morning on February 26th, when the waning crescent Moon — sometimes referred to as a decrescent Moon — meets up with a brilliant Venus in the dawn sky. This will be a showcase event for the ongoing 2014 dawn apparition of Venus that we wrote about recently.

This is one of 16 occultations of a planet by our Moon for 2014, which will hide every naked eye classical planet except Jupiter and only one of two involving Venus this year.

An occultation occurs when one celestial body passes in front of another, obscuring it from our line of sight. The term is used to refer to planets or asteroids blocking out distant stars or the Moon passing in front of stars or planets.

Wednesday’s event has a central conjunction time of 5:00 Universal. Viewers in northwestern Africa based in Mali and southern Algeria and surrounding nations will see the occultation occur in the dawn sky before sunrise, while viewers eastward across the Horn of Africa, the southern Arabian peninsula, India and southeast Asia will see the occultation occur in the daylight.

January 29th, 2014
A comparison of Venus versus the Moon in the daytime taken by Sharin Ahmad (@shahgazer) from Malaysia during the last lunation on January 29th, 2014.

Observers worldwide, including those based in Australia, Europe and the Americas will see a near miss, but early risers will still be rewarded with a brilliant dawn pairing of the second and third brightest objects in the night sky. This will also be a fine time to attempt to spot Venus in the daytime, using the nearby crescent Moon as a guide. It’s easier than you might think!  In fact, Venus is actually brighter than the Moon per apparent square arc second of surface area, owing to its higher average reflectivity (known as albedo) of 80% versus the Moon’s dusky 14%.

The International Occultation Timing Association also maintains a chart of ingress and egress times for specific locations along the track of the occultation.

Credit: Created using Occult 4.0.11.
The footprint of the Wednesday occultation of Venus by the Moon. Solid lines indicate where the occultation occurs before sunrise, while the dashed area denotes where the occultation occurs after sunrise. Credit: Created using Occult 4.1.0.11.

The Moon occults Venus 21 times in this decade. The last occultation of Venus by the Moon occurred on September 8th, 2013, and the next occurs October 23rd 2014 over the South Pacific in daylight skies very close to the Sun, and is unobservable.

Wednesday’s event also offers a unique opportunity to catch a crescent Venus emerging from behind the dark limb of the Moon. On Wednesday, Venus presents a 34” diameter disk that is 35% illuminated and shining at magnitude -4.3, while the Moon is a 12% illuminated crescent three days from New. Fun fact: February 2014 is missing a New Moon, meaning that both January and March will each contain two!

Apparent path of Venus in relation to the Moon
Apparent path of Venus in relation to the Moon Wednesday morning as seen from a theoretical geocentric (Earth-centered) location. Created using Starry Night Education software.

This also means that a well positioned observer in northwestern Africa would be able to see able to catch the dark limb of Venus creeping out from behind the nighttime side of the Moon against a dark sky. Such favorable occurrences only happen a handful of times per decade, and this week would be a great time to try and briefly spot – or perhaps even video or photograph – a phenomenon know as the ashen light of Venus as the dazzling crescent daytime side of the planet lay obscured by the Moon. Is this effect reported by observers over the years a fanciful illusion, or a real occurrence?

Perhaps, due to the remote location, this chance to spy and record this elusive effect will go unnoticed this time ‘round. The next chance with optimal possibilities to catch a crescent Venus occulted by the Moon against a dark sky occurs next year on October 8th, 2015, favoring the Australian outback. Anyone out there down for an observing expedition to prove or disprove the ashen light of Venus once and for all? Astronomy road trip!

Photo by Author
April 22nd, 2009 conjunction of Venus and the Moon as seen from Hudson, Florida. The Photo by author.

This event also provides optimal circumstances as Venus heads towards greatest elongation west of the Sun on March 22nd and the Moon-Venus pair lay 43 degrees west of the Sun during Wednesday’s event. Compare this to the impossible to observe occultation this October, when the pairing is only one degree east of the Sun! The next occultation of Venus for North America occurs next year on December 7th, 2015 and will be visible in the daytime across the extent of the track except for Alaska and Northwestern Canada.

Vexillographers may also want to take note: this week’s Venus-Moon pairing will closely emulate the familiar crescent Moon plus star pairing seen on many national flags worldwide. Did an ancient and unrecorded occultation of Venus by the Moon inspire this meme?   Tradition has it that Sultan Alp Arslan settled on the star and crescent for the flag of the Turks after witnessing a close conjunction after the defeat of the Byzantine Army at the Battle of Manzikert on August 26th, 1071 A.D. This tale, however, is almost certainly apocryphal, as no occultations of planets or bright stars by the Moon occurred on or near that date, and only two occultations of Venus by the Moon occurred that year. And Venus was less than two degrees from the Sun on that date, yet another strike against it. In fact, the only occultations of Venus by the Moon in 1071 occurred on June 29th and November 27th. Perhaps Arslan just took a while to decide…

Still, this week’s event provides a great photo-op to have “Fun with Flags” and capture the pair behind your favorite astronomical conjunction-depicting banner. And be sure to send those pics into Universe Today… methinks there’s a good chance of us running a post occultation photo-essay later this week!