08Feb2014

Venus is February’s Morning Star

Morn StarEarly risers this month are greeted by the brilliant beacon planet Venus brightly shining in the morning twilight. After a great performance in December’s evening sky, the planet passed through inferior conjunction.

Passing between the Earth and sun in January it is currently entering a morning apparition that will be its best for all of 2014.  A person doesn’t necessarily have to rise all that early to catch Venus. Venus is so bright that it may still be visible in a clear sky at 6 a.m., but try 30 minutes before sunrise just to be certain. The luckiest observers will have a comfy bed located next to a window facing  east that they won’t even have to crawl out of in order to see it.

Venus will be the brightest thing in the sky, 20 degrees or higher over the southeastern horizon — depending on the time of observation. The later you observe, the lower Venus is in the sky.

For those who do brave the cold and take a telescope outside, Venus will exhibit a small crescent shape reminiscent of the moon. Venus’ thick clouds are generally featureless, but persistent observers should notice the crescent slowly fattening from day to day until it appears half-full in late March. You’ve gotta see Venus at least once in a scope!

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Venus in real time. Crushing pressures and temperatures of 900 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface.

Although Venus is one of the five classical planets known since antiquity, Pythagoras is sometimes given at least some credit in its discovery. This is because he deduced that the planets known as the “morning star” and “evening star” were one and the same. The ancient Babylonians have also been credited with making this discovery a thousand years earlier.

Venus is the second planet from the sun and is therefore much hotter than the third planet, Earth. How much hotter? Think of an oven boiler and add a few hundred more degrees. Venus’ average temperature is around 865 degrees. The atmospheric pressure on Venus is also a crushing 90 times that of Earth.

That’s above the operating temperature of most devices, which is why Venus is a difficult and harsh environment for visiting spacecraft. Here’s a brief history of landing missions to the surface of Venus.

Eight Venus landers from the Soviet Union’s Venera series transmitted data for a combined total of less than 10 hours from the planet’s surface. Venera 7 (1970) landed and transmitted a weak signal for 23 minutes. Venera 8 (1972) landed and transmitted for 50 minutes. Veneras 9 and 10 (1975) operated on the surface for 53 and at least 65 minutes, respectively. Veneras 11 and 12 (1978) landed and operated for at least 95 and 110 minutes, respectively. Veneras 13 and 14 (1981) landed and survived for 127 and 57 minutes, respectively.

In 1985, two more landers from the Soviet Union touched down on Venus. The redundant Vegas 1 and 2 transmitted data from the surface for 56 and 57 minutes, respectively. MNo other country has attempted to soft land spacecraft on Venus. Source: Carroll County Times

Observing Venus

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 Venus is the easiest object in the night sky, other than the Moon, to spot.  It’s extremely bright, although the actual brightness varies depending on its phase and its distance from Earth.  The thick cloud layer is highly reflective, making the planet range in brightness from -4.89 to -3.82.   The other nice thing it has going for it is that it’s always low on the horizon when it’s visible, and it’s only visible near sunrise or sunset (but never both at once), times when many people are still out and about.

It’s so easy to see that people who aren’t looking for it spot it all the time, often mistaking it for an airplane or a UFO.  If conditions are right and you know where to look (and are VERY careful of looking at the Sun by accident), it can even be seen during daylight.

And it is said that people with really exceptionally good vision can see, without the aid of a telescope or binoculars, one of the things that makes Venus special: as an inferior planet, it shows phases to us.  Just like the Moon, we are in a position to see it pass between us and the Sun, or close to that.  At superior conjunction (on the far side of the Sun), it appears full.  When it is at greatest elongation (as far from the Sun as it can be from our point of view), it appears half-full.

 When it is near conjunction, it is a thin crescent, and also appears a great deal larger than when it is full, because it is much closer.  When it is at inferior conjunction (appearing between us and the Sun), it is “new” and, would become invisible if not for its thick atmosphere to light up and bend sunlight around it.  On very rare occasions, it can even transit the solar disk.  It did so last year, and will not do so again within the lifetimes of anyone today.

If you want to see Venus yourself, start off using just your eyeballs.  Look for it low in the eastern sky just before sunrise.  It’s quite bright and conspicuous.  Once you are familiar with it, try looking with binoculars or a small telescope.  You may notice that it is half full.  Observe it regularly over the next few months, and you can notice two things in particular: it gets bigger and slimmer at the same time, as it approaches Earth and shrinks to a crescent simultaneously After a few months, it will eventually reappear on the other side of our horizon, which from our perspective means it becomes a evening star.

Venus is a great target for beginning stargazers, because not only is it very conspicuous, but it also it is best observed at a relatively civilized hour, unlike most astronomical phenomena, which tend to be late-night events and require a lot of coffee.  😉

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