(Go here for a personal update on observing this even – with pictures.)
Venus is a visual treat any night – and for that matter day – this spring, dazzling us in the western sky right after Sunset as it puts in it best performance of this year and has close encounters with the Moon, the Pleiades, and finally the Sun itself. This last is a once-in-a-lifetime-appearance – the other events are less rare, but, of course, the weather has to cooperate. Nothing is needed for most of these experiences but your naked eye, though binoculars help and a small telescope makes it even more fun. The last event – the encounter with the Sun – does require a telescope and one with a special filter to make viewing safe.
Here’ s a quick visual guide to Venus events, followed by a guide on how to find Venus in broad daylight – no kidding – and what’s more, late March through April is the best time to try to see this brilliant planet at mid day! I’ll update this post for May. Please note, the charts are specific to my location which makes them generally best for the East Coast of the US. You can see this show from anywhere in the world, but the exact positions of Venus and the Moon on any given evening will vary somewhat depending on your latitude and longitude.
- March 25, 2012
- March 26, 2012
- March 27, 2012
- April 2, 3, and 4 – a once-in-eight-years encounter between Venus and the Pleiades!
- April 22, 2012
- April 24, 2012
- April 25, 2012
- May 22, 2012
- Orrery View – why we see what we see – the dance of the Moon and planets
- June 5, 2012 – the Once-in-a-Lifetime Show – Venus transits the Sun
- In April 2012 you can meet the Goddess of Love in broad daylight – no fooling!
March 25, 2012
March 26, 2012
March 27, 2012
April 2, 3, and 4 – a once-in-eight-years encounter between Venus and the Pleaides!
Venus gets near the bright stars of the Pleiades every eight years. This year it will pass through the south side of the cluster, which means that on April 3 , using binoculars, you should be able to see Venus to the left of the four core bright stars in the cluster. The mythological implications are staggering – I can see the headlines in Ancient Greece now – Goddess of Love Meets Seven Sisters! Here’s how Wikipedia sums up their sex lives:
Several of the most prominent male Olympian gods (including Zeus, Poseidon, and Ares) engaged in affairs with the seven heavenly sisters. These relationships resulted in the birth of their children.
- Maia, eldest of the seven Pleiades, was mother of Hermes by Zeus.
- Electra was mother of Dardanus and Iasion, by Zeus.
- Taygete was mother of Lacedaemon, also by Zeus.
- Alcyone was mother of Hyrieus, Hyperenor and Aethusa by Poseidon.
- Celaeno was mother of Lycus and Eurypylus by Poseidon.
- Sterope (also Asterope) was mother of Oenomaus by Ares.
- Merope, youngest of the seven Pleiades, was wooed by Orion. In other mythic contexts she married Sisyphus and, becoming mortal, faded away. She bore to Sisyphus several sons.
April 22, 2012
April 24, 2012
April 25, 2012
May 22, 2012
- On May 22, 2012 the situation looks much different. Venus is now getting much closer to the Sun – remember it has a date with the Sun in early June – but it still gives us one more nice combination with the Moon. Again, unobstructed western horizon is important. The other stars named in the chart are all bright “guidepost” stars but may be difficult to see in strong twilight – however, they will be the first to appear as twilight fades. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot – click to enlarge.
June 5, 2012 – Once-in-a-Lifetime Show – Venus transits the Sun
As I wrote in January -
So circle June 5, 2012. What is a transit of Venus? It’s a time when we can see Venus as a black dot cross the disc of the Sun – a time when Venus is actually between us and the Sun – and it happens rarely. There have been just seven such transits since the invention of the telescope! And – of course – be careful! You will need special equipment to observe such a transit. Never look at the sun either with your naked eye or any binocular or telescope unless it is one especially equipped just for looking at the Sun. Such equipment isn’t expensive, though, and if you already have a telescope, would be a good investment to consider for this event and to regularly see sunspots. I’m sure there will be several public observation points set up for those who don’t have such a telescope.
More details will be provided in May.
Orrery View – why we see what we see – the dance of the Moon and planets
The dance between the bright planets and the Moon is always fascinating, but made all the more so if you understand what is going on back stage – why we see what we see. To do that, I suggest you study the following Orrery views taken from the Solar System live web site. Take care to note the line of sight between earth, a given planet, and the Sun. Everything is in motion,of course, but the motions that count the most for the changes we see in our Western sky right now from night-tonight are these:
- The moon moves about 12 degrees – more than our extended fist – each evening because of its orbit around the Earth.
- Venus moves relatively quickly, so it’s change of position is a combination of its own movements and the motions of the Earth as we both circle the Sun.
- The changes in how we see Jupiter are primarily caused by our own motiona round the Sun. Jupiter is in motion, but it is slower and so far away that it takes weeks, if not months to notice its motion against the background of stars. However, as with the stars, it’s position change a little each night because of the motion of the Earth.
And on June 5, 2012 – the day that Venus will transit the Sun, here’s a close-up view of the line-up of Venus, Earth, and the Sun.
In April 2012 you can meet the Goddess of Love in broad daylight – no fooling!
Actually, you can do it right now. We’re talking Venus, here, and our sister planet is so bright even in March that you can see it with the naked eye in the middle of a clear day! All you have to do is know when and where to look – and please, please avoid the nearby Sun!
What’s more, April is the best time to look for it this year because this is the month when it is at its brightest and also near it’s greatest distance from the Sun. That great distance makes it easier to see – and safer.
Here’s how. On a clear day look for Venus in the path the Sun took across the sky, but about forty -five degrees behind it. (Use your fist to get a rough idea, remembering one fist, held at arms length, is about 10-degrees.) Use binoculars and once you spot it and know exactly where to look, use your naked eye. And play it safe by leaving the Sun blocked from sight by a nearby building, tree, or other obstacle.
OK -let me expand on those instructions and give you some specifics and hints of how best to do this.
First – the day should be clear – really clear with the bluer the sky the better. Not all “clear” days are equal. Astronomers are looking for “transparency” as well, which means you don’t want a milky, white sky.
Second - You should know that Venus follow the same general path as the Sun does across the sky – sometimes behind it (as now), and sometimes ahead of it. Usually Venus is too close to the Sun to easily – and safely – pick out. But this April – and for that matter the end of March – it well be separated from the Sun by about 45 degrees – the most it will be all year.
Third, pick your viewing location carefully. Everyone should know not to look at the Sun, but I don’t want your enthusiasm for seeing Venus in daylight to lead to an accidental viewing of the Sun – and besides, this will make the seeing easier. STAND ON THE EAST SIDE OF A BUILDING AFTER THE SUN HAS PASSED SO EVEN IF YOU ACCIDENTALLY LOOK TOWARDS THE SUN, YOU WON’T SEE IT!
Fourth, pick your time – generally from noon until sunset, but I think the best time will be when Venus is highest in the sky – near what is called it’s “transit.” That gives you a good place to look – due south and roughly at the same altitude as the Sun was at around noon. In April, 2012, Venus transits about three hours after the Sun. In other words, if you know when the Sun is at its highest point – locally, for me, that’s close to 1 pm on April 1 – then Venus will be coming along to the same point about three hours later – about 4 pm.
Fifth – begin your search with binoculars – any binoculars will do, but generally one with low power and thus a reasonably wide field of view. And one caution. You will systematically scan the correct area of sky – but do your scanning slowly. I was out testing this the other day and found it was very , very easy to see Venus in binoculars – yet I missed it over and over again because I was scanning too fast!
Could I see it with the naked eye in March? No. Not on the three days I looked and saw it in binoculars. Maybe the days just weren’t clear enough – there was a lot of moisture in the air. And maybe my old eyes are just not keen enough for this sort of thing. But I did see Venus this way several years ago and it’s one of those sights that when you first find it, you can’t believe you were missing it.
The best hint I’ve read for this – and this is true with binoculars as well as your eyes – first focus your binoculars on the most distant object you can see – hopefully something a good half mile or more away away. That way they’ll be roughly in focus to pick up Venus. (You can even do this the night before by focusing them on a star.) And when you’re searching with the naked eye? Do the same thing. Focus your eyes on some distant object, THEN look up for Venus. (Our eyes tend to default to a near – or nearer – focus point if we’re not careful. )
It’s always cool to see a bright planet – but it is so much cooler to see a bright planet in broad daylight – even with binoculars Venus will be a sparkling white diamond against a beautiful blue sky.