Venus Returns as the Evening Star

Venus and waning crescent moon, pre-dawn

Venus and waning crescent moon, pre-dawn

Look low to the WNW now, evenings, right after sunset. If you have an unobstructed view to the horizon, our sister planet, Venus, will be unmistakable. Mercury’s still there with it, but will quickly fall towards the horizon, as he rapidly begins to swing between Earth and the sun after the 12th ( the fleet-footed planet will be back, in the pre-dawn sky, by the last week of July ). Venus is beginning its months-long sojourn in our evening sky, in its incarnation as the Evening Star.

Venus, aka the evening star, 5/7/12

Venus, aka the evening star, 5/7/12

In the above photo-which I’ve posted previously, in an earlier blog entry-Venus is seen, ending its previous “run” as the evening star: here it’s about three weeks out from “inferior” conjunction, or passing between Earth and the sun. Unfortunately, the picture doesn’t show the beautiful crescent “moon” phase it was exhibiting through the telescope!

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Here is Venus again, almost a month later, appearing to cross the surface of the sun. This is an EXTREMELY rare event, called a transit. Fortuitous timing, too, as I had about a half hour to observe its motion, crossing the sun, before the sun started setting behind nearby trees! Nobody East of the Mississippi saw the complete transit…the sun set for us well before the transit crossing was over.

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I’ve posted yet another picture, showing just how I observed this event: NOT gazing directly through the instrument, but projecting the image onto…well, anything of a light color. NEVER look directly at the sun, whether glancing up, or especially through a telescope or binoculars! It can instantly blind you.

A rare conjunction, pre-dawn, 11/26/12

A rare conjunction, pre-dawn, 11/26/12

Here is Venus yet again. After the transit crossing was complete, Venus immediately became the morning star once more. It was visible, in the pre-dawn sky, about three weeks after the transit crossing. In this photo, Venus is “wrapping up” its latest sojourn as the morning star, having spent essentially the latter half of 2012 in the pre-dawn sky. That’s why it isn’t reported as a UFO during this incarnation: people simply aren’t awake to see it in the sky (versus plenty of dedicated folks phoning it in, during an evening star run!).

The very recent triple conjunction, alas, was not visible from my location of SE Alabama, due to clouds hanging over my WNW horizon (but clear overhead; go figure). Well…you win some; you lose some. Be warned: astronomy is a whimsical lady. She’ll purr like a kitten, then spit in your eye!

But I have indeed digressed. Back to the current “incarnation”: because of the shallow angle of the ecliptic-the apparent path that the sun, moon and planets appear to take, meandering through the twelve zodiac constellations-to the horizon, Venus will remain relatively low for pretty much the next several weeks. Its ascent will be more pronounced in August, as the planet swings farther out in its orbit.

Venus will have another “guest”, sharing its current corner of the night sky: Lady Di! Our moon will be visible a mere five degrees from the bright “star” of Venus on June 10th, as a razor-slim crescent. Look carefully, and you’ll just be able to make it out, before the pair begins to set. The following night, the moon will be slightly fatter…and accompanying Mercury, the somewhat dimmer “star”. Watch Mercury closely, each opportunity you get. Because the elusive planet is so close to the sun, we have merely a fraction of the opportunity for observing the innermost planet. An “apparition” of Mercury, in the evening sky, lasts a mere two weeks or so, versus one of Venus lasting for months, due to its substantially larger orbit, and farther distance from our sun.

Notice, too, the angle of the moon as it faces the horizon: the crescent phase is at an angle, indicative of the shallow angle of the ecliptic right now. Contrast that with the above picture I took, back in late November, of another pairing of Venus and the then-waning crescent moon. At that time, the angle of the ecliptic was very sharp, virtually ninety degrees to the pre-dawn horizon.

Venus currently looks like a miniature full “moon” through a telescope. That’s because it has recently emerged from the other side of its orbit, swinging out from behind the sun. Over the next few months, if you have a telescope, take periodic looks…you’ll notice the planet beginning to wane, exhibiting the same phase changes of our waning gibbous moon, after being full. When the planet reaches maximum elongation, it will resemble a tiny half-moon!

Speaking of planets, don’t forget to take a gander at lonely Saturn, well-placed after dusk, high in the southern sky. It’s fairly easy to spot. The only other star that you might confuse it with is Spica, the first-magnitude star in the constellation Virgo. Spica has a pronounced bluish-white hue. Saturn has a yellowish color.

Years ago, as I showed the ringed planet to a friend’s mother, I later found out she said I had taped a picture to the lens of my scope! Is it any wonder, that there are folks who still believe the moon landings were faked?

Too much stargazing, so little time!

Clear Skies,

Jesse

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