An Incredible Time-lapse of Venus Passing Through Inferior Conjunction

Image credit: Shahrin

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.


Now is a Great Time to Try Seeing Venus in the Daytime Sky

Venus (arrowed) imaged near the waning crescent Moon on August 13th, 2012. (Photo by author).

Here’s a feat of visual athletics to amaze your friends with this week. During your daily routine, you may have noticed the daytime Moon hanging against the azure blue sky. But did you know that, with careful practice and a little planning, you can see Venus in the broad daylight as well?

This week offers a great chance to try, using the daytime Moon as a guide. We recently wrote about the unique circumstances of this season’s evening apparition of the planet Venus. On Friday, December 6th, Venus will reach a maximum brilliancy of magnitude -4.7, over 16 times brighter than Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. And just one evening prior on Thursday December 5th, the 3-day old crescent Moon passes eight degrees above it, slightly closer together than the span of your palm held at arm’s length.

Created using Starry Night Education software.
The orientation of Venus and the Moon on Thursday, December 5th as it crosses the local meridian at 3PM EST. Created using Starry Night Education software.

The Moon will thus make an excellent guide to spot Venus in the broad daylight. It’s even possible to nab the pair with a camera, if you can gauge the sky conditions and tweak the manual settings of your DSLR just right.

The best time to attempt this feat on Thursday will be when the pair transits the local meridian due south of your location. Deep in the southern hemisphere, the Moon and Venus will appear to transit to the north.  This occurs right around 3:00 PM local. The fingernail Moon will be easy to spot, then simply begin scanning the sky to the south of it with the naked eye or binoculars for the brilliant diamond of Venus. High contrast and blocking the Sun out of view is key — Venus will easily pop right out against a clear deep blue sky, but it may disappear all together against a washed out white background.

The Moon will be at a 10% illuminated phase on Thursday, while Venus presents a slimming crescent at 27% illumination. Though tougher to find, Venus is actually brighter than the Moon in terms of albedo… expand it up to the apparent size of a Full Moon and it would be over four times as bright!

Photo by author.
Church and Venus as seen from Westgate River Ranch, Florida. Photo by author.

You’ll be amazed what an easy catch Venus is in the daytime once you’ve spotted it — we’ve included views of Venus in the daytime when visible during sidewalk star parties for years.

Due to its brilliancy, Venus has also been implicated in more UFO sightings than any other planet, and even caused the Indian Army to mistake the pair for snooping Chinese drones earlier this year when it was in conjunction with the planet Jupiter. A daytime sighting of the planet Venus near the Moon was almost certainly the “curious star” reported by startled villagers observing from Saint-Denis, France on January 13th, 1589.

Venus can also cast a noticeable shadow near greatest brilliancy, an effect that can be discerned against a fresh snow-covered landscape. Can’t see it? Take a time exposure shot of the ground and you may just be able to tease it out… but hurry, as the waxing Moon will soon be dominating the early evening night sky show!

Another phenomenon to watch for this week on the face of the waxing crescent Moon is known as Earthshine. Can you just make out the dark limb of the Moon? This is caused by the Earth acting as a “mirror” reflecting sunlight back at the nighttime side of the Moon. And don’t forget, China’s Chang’e-3 lander plus rover will be landing on the lunar surface in the Sinus Iridum region later this month on December 14th, the first lunar soft landing since 1976!

The imaginary line of the ecliptic currently bisects the Moon and Venus, as Venus sits at an extreme southern point 2.5 degrees below the ecliptic — in fact, 2013 the farthest south it’s been since 1930 — and the Moon sits over four degrees above the ecliptic this week. The Moon also reached another notable point today, as it reached its most northern “southerly point” for 2013 at a declination of -19.6 degrees. The Moon’s apparent path is headed for a “shallow year” in 2015, after which it’ll begin to slowly widen over its 18.6 year cycle out to a maximum declination range in 2024. It’s a weird but true fact that the motion of the Moon is not fixed to the Earth’s equatorial plane, but to the path of our orbit traced out by the ecliptic, to which its orbit is tilted an average of five degrees.

The view looking west tonight from latitude 30 degrees north. Created using Stellarium.

And speaking of the Moon, there’s another fun naked-eye feat you can attempt tonight. At dusk, U.S. East Coast observers might just be able to pick up the razor thin crescent Moon hanging low to the West, only 23 hours past New. Begin scanning the western horizon about 10 minutes after sunset. Can you see it with binoculars? The naked eye? Chances get better for sighting the slim crescent Moon the farther west you go. North American observers will have a chance at a “personal best” during next lunation in the first few days of 2014… more to come!

Be sure to send those Venus-Moon conjunction pics in to Universe Today!