The Moon Greets the Planets in the November Dawn

So, did this past weekend’s shift back to Standard Time for most of North America throw you for a loop? Coming the day after Halloween, 2015 was the earliest we can now shift back off Daylight Saving Time. Sunday won’t fall on November 1st again until 2020. Expect evenings get darker sooner for northern hemisphere residents, while the planetary action remains in the dawn sky.

Though Mercury has exited the morning twilight stage, the planets Jupiter, Venus and Mars continue to put on a fine show, joined by the waning crescent Moon later this week. The action starts today on November 3rd, which finds +1.9 magnitude Mars passing just 0.68 degrees (40’, just over the apparent diameter of a Full Moon) from brilliant -3.9 magnitude Venus. Though the two nearest planets to the Earth appear to meet up in the dawn sky, Mars is actually 2.5 times more distant than Venus, which sits 74.4 million miles (124 million kilometres) from the Earth. Venus exhibits a 57% illuminated gibbous phase 21” across this week, versus Mars’ paltry 4.5” disc.

November 6th. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software
The lunar planetary lineup on the morning of November 6th… Image credit: Starry Night Education Software

Watch the scene shift, as the Moon joins the dance this weekend. The mornings of Friday, November 6th and Saturday, November 7th are key, as the Moon passes just two degrees from the Jupiter and Mars pair and just over one degree from Venus worldwide. Similar close pairings of the Moon and Venus adorn many national flags, possibly inspired by a close grouping of Venus and the Moon witnessed by skywatchers of yore.

November 7th
… and the view the next morning on November 7th. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

Saturday November 7th is also a fine time to try your hand at seeing Venus in the daytime, using the nearby crescent Moon as a guide. The Moon will be only four days from New, and the pair will be 46 degrees west of the Sun, an optimal situation as Venus just passed greatest western elongation 46.4 degrees west of the Sun on October 26th.

Nov 3
Mars meets Venus on November 3rd-4th… the center circle = 1 degree FoV. Image credit: Stellarium

Though Venus may seem like a difficult daytime object, it’s actually intrinsically brighter than the Moon per square arc second. Difficulty finding it stems from seeing it against a low contrast blue daytime sky, its small size, and lack of context and depth. The larger but dimmer Moon actually serves as a good anchor to complete this feat of visual athletics.

Venus from the morning of November 3rd. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad
Venus from the morning of November 3rd. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad

Looking for more? Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina will join the planetary lineup next lunation ‘round, hopefully shining at magnitude +5 as it glides past Venus and the Moon on December 7th. Karl Battams at the U.S. Naval Research Labs has confirmed that Comet US10 Catalina—which reaches perihelion this month on November 15th –should also briefly graze the field of view for SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera on November 7th.

There’s also a few notable lunar occultations this week. The Moon also occults the +5 magnitude star Chi Leonis for viewers around the Gulf of Mexico on November 4th, including a dramatic grazing event for Northern Florida. The Moon also occults the +3.5 magnitude star Omicron Leonis on Nov 4th for Alaska as well.

Image credit:
The occultation footprint for Chi Leonis. The solid lines indicate where the event will occur during darkness and twilight hours, while the dashed lines denote where the event transpires during the daytime. Image credit: Occult 4.2 software

See a bright star near the Venus this week? It’s none other than +3.6 magnitude Beta Virginis (Zavijava). The star passes 15’ from Venus on the morning of November 6th. Stick around ‘til 2069, and you can actually witness Venus occult Beta Virginis. Between Beta Virginis and Mars, Venus has the appearance this week of having the large pseudo-moon it never possessed. From Venus, our Moon would appear near magnitude +0.4 with a disk 6.4” this week, and range 12’ from the Earth.

Nov 7
The closeup view on the morning of November 7th along with a 5 degree Telrad FoV. image credit: Stellarium

Now for the wow factor. All of these disparate objects merely lie along our Earthbound line of sight this week. Traveling at the speed of light (186,282 miles or 299,792 kilometers a second), the Moon lies just over a second away. Venus, Mars and Jupiter are next, at 6, 18, and 49 light minutes out, respectively… and Beta Virginis? It lies 36 light years distant.

This pass of the Moon also sets us up for an occultation of Mars and a dramatic daytime occultation of Venus for North America during the next lunation…

More to come!

-Got pictures of the planetary grouping this week with the Moon? Be sure to send ’em in to Universe Today and our Flickr forum.

Bright Venus Takes Center Stage in November

“What’s that bright object to the southwest at dusk?” We’ve already fielded more than a few such questions as Earth’s sister world shines in the dusk sky.  Venus just passed its maximum elongation 47 degrees east of the Sun on November 1st, and currently shines at a brilliant magnitude -4.46. This is almost 16 times brighter than the brightest star in the sky, -1.46th magnitude Sirius.

Venus and the waxing crescent Moon, looking to the west tonite at 30 minutes after sunset for latitude 30 degrees north. (Created using Stellarium).
Venus and the waxing crescent Moon, looking to the west tonite at 30 minutes after sunset for latitude 30 degrees north. (Created using Stellarium).

Just like the Moon, Venus goes through a full range of phases. Through the telescope, Venus currently presents a 26.7” diameter disk. That size will swell to almost 40” by month’s end, as Venus begins to approach the Earth and presents a noticeable crescent phase. We just passed dichotomy — the theoretical point where Venus presents a half-illuminated phase as seen from Earth — on October 31st, and Venus already shows a noticeable crescent:

Venus on the night of November 5th 2013, a quick stack of about 200 frames. (Photo by Author)
Venus on the night of November 5th 2013, a quick stack of about 200 frames. (Photo by Author)

Note that we say “theoretical” because there’s typically a discrepancy of a day or two between predicted and observed dichotomy. This is also known as Schröter’s Effect. One probable cause for this is the dazzling appearance of the disk of Venus. We typically use a variable polarizing filter to cut the glare of Venus down at the eyepiece.

You might also note that Venus currently occupies the “basement” of the zodiac in the constellation Sagittarius. In fact, the planet is currently as far south as it can go, sitting at a declination of -27° 14’ on this very evening. You have to go all the way back to 1930 to find a more southerly declination of Venus, just 12’ lower!

But you won’t have to wait much longer to break that record, as the chart below shows for the most southerly declinations of Venus for the next half century:

Year Date Declination
2013 November 6th -27° 09’
2021 “            “ -27° 14’
2029 “            “ -27° 18’
2037 “            “ -27° 23’
2045 “            “ -27° 29’
2053 “            “ -27° 34’
2061 “            “ -27° 39’


Note that each event occurs on November 6th, and they’re spaced 8 years apart. Apparitions of Venus closely duplicate their paths in the sky over an 8 year cycle. This is because the planet nearly completes 13 orbits of the Sun for our 8. Venus “catches up” to the Earth on its interior orbit once every 584 days to reach inferior conjunction. It usually passes above or below the Sun from our vantage point, though last year it transited, a feat that won’t be witnessed again until 2117 AD.

How far south can Venus go? Well, its orbit is tilted 3.4 degrees relative to the ecliptic. It can reach a southern declination of -28 05’, though you have to go way back to 1874 for its last occurrence!

Today is also a great time to try your hand at spotting Venus in the daytime, as a 3-day old waxing crescent Moon lies about eight degrees to its upper right:

A daytime Venus near the Moon transiting to the south at about 3:30PM EST today. A 5 degree wide Telrad "bullseye" is provided for scale. (Credit: Stellarium).
A daytime Venus near the Moon, transiting to the south at about 3:30PM EST today. A 5 degree wide Telrad “bullseye” is provided for scale. (Credit: Stellarium).

Note that seeing Venus in the daytime is surprisingly easy, once you known exactly where to look for it. Your best chances are around mid-afternoon at about 3PM local, when the daytime Moon and Venus lie highest in the southern sky. Did you know that Venus is actually intrinsically brighter per square arc second than the Moon? It’s true! The Moon actually has a very low reflective albedo of 12% — about the equivalent of fresh asphalt — while the cloud tops of Venus are more akin the fresh snow with an albedo of about 80%.

Its also worth checking out Venus and its local environs after nightfall as it passes near the Lagoon (M8) and the Trifid nebula (M8) on the night of November 6th. Continuing with its trek across the star rich plane of the heart of the Milky Way galaxy, Venus also passes near the globular cluster M22 on November 13th.

Venus also sits in the general of Pluto on November 15th, lying just 6.6 degrees south of it. Be sure to wave in the general direction of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft bound for Pluto in July 2015 tonight as well, using the Moon and Venus for a guide:

The position of the Moon, Venus, Pluto, & New Horizons on the night of November 6th, 2013. (Created using Starry Night Education Software).
The position of the Moon, Venus, Pluto, & New Horizons at 14UT on November 7th, 2013. (Created using Starry Night Education Software).

Another shot at seeing Venus paired with the Moon occurs on December 5th.

Venus also presents a maximum area of illumination on December 6th, and will shine at its brightest on December 10th at magnitude -4.7. Can you catch it casting a shadow? The best time to search for this illusive phenomenon would be just before New Moon on December 2nd. A dark sky site away from any other sources of illumination, and a snow covered ground providing high contrast also helps. Fortunately, snow isn’t in short supply in the northern hemisphere in December!

Venus is currently the only naked eye planet in the November early evening sky. We always thought that it’s a bit of a cosmic irony that the nearest planet presents a dazzling, but featureless white disk as seen from Earth. Diligent amateurs have, however, been able to tease out cloud patterns on Venus using UV filters.

Another elusive phenomenon to watch for as Venus reaches a crescent phase is ashen light. Long reported by observers, a faint glow on the night side of Venus is something that persists, but shouldn’t be. A similar effect seen on the night side of the Moon known as Earthshine is easily explained by sunlight being reflected off of the Earth… but Venus has no moon. What gives? Frequent explanations over the years have been aurorae, electrical activity, airglow, or, more frequently cited, observer bias. The brain wants to see a filled in space, and promptly inserts it betwixt the dazzling horns of the planet.

Keep an eye on Venus as it reaches maximum brilliancy and heads towards inferior conjunction on January 11th, 2014, and a rare chance to see it on said date… more to come!