It’s been a marvelous few months following Venus rise and fall across the evening sky, in its best show in eight years.
Venus is now gone from our western sky, but since late 2019 until late May 2020 it had dominated the sky as a brilliant evening star.
Here’s a gallery of Venus portraits I shot during its wonderful show these last few months.
The show began in November 2019 when rising Venus met declining Jupiter on November 23 for a fine conjunction of the two brightest planets in the evening twilight.
A week later I captured the line of the then three evening planets and the Moon across the southwest, defining the path of the ecliptic across the evening sky.
A week after that I took the opportunity to shoot some selfies of me with binoculars looking at Venus, as it met Saturn in a wide conjunction, with Venus then still low in the southwest. It was just beginning its climb up into the western sky.
A month later in mid-winter, Venus was still rather low but brilliant even in a hazy moonlit sky, as I posed for another selfie, this time with a small telescope. These images are always useful for illustrations in books and magazines. And blogs!
By the end of February Venus had climbed high into the west, and was appearing monthly near the waxing crescent Moon. This is another binocular selfie from February 27.
In March I visited Churchill, Manitoba just as the lockdown and travel restrictions were coming into effect. But our lone and last tour group at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre saw some fine auroras, as here on this evening with the Northern Lights appearing even in the twilight. And what’s that bright star? Venus, of course!
Upon my return home to Alberta, I was able to shoot more panoramas on the prairies of the wonderful early spring sky with Orion setting into the twilight and Venus in Taurus shining below the iconic Pleiades star cluster.
March 26 was a superb night for catching Venus now at its highest and almost at its brightest at this appearance, as the waxing Moon appeared below it.
The highlight of the spring Venus season was its close approach to the Pleiades, which it passes only every 8 years. Here I am viewing the conjunction two days before the closest approach, with Orion over my shoulder.
The night of closest approach, April 3, was cloudy, but here is a consolation closeup taken the next night with brilliant Venus departing the Seven Sisters.
Later in April Venus reached its greatest brilliancy, at magnitude -4.7, the date when the size of is disk, phase, and proximity to Earth converge to make Venus as bright as possible. On this night I shot the Moon, then 30° away from Venus and the planet with the same gear to show their relative sizes and similar crescent phase this night. The caption provides more details.
A week later, with Venus just past its point of greatest brilliancy, I shot the planet by daylight in the early evening sky, using a telescope to zoom into the planet to show its waning crescent phase. By this time the phase was obvious in binoculars.
But Venus was now dropping rapidly from sight. By May 23, it was low in the twilight and below Mercury, then at its best for 2020 for an evening appearance from my latitude. Note the thin Moon below the planets. This was a superb sight for binoculars.
By May 29, Venus was now tough to pick out of the evening sky, and a challenge to shoot even by day, as it then stood only 8° away from the Sun. What was once obvious to the naked eye now took a computerized telescope to pick out of the noon-day blue sky. A telescope showed the now razor-thin crescent as Venus approached its June 3 “inferior conjunction” — its passage between Earth and the Sun.
I shot and narrated video footage of the thin crescent Venus, my parting shots of Venus for its evening appearance in 2020.
But in June, post inferior conjunction, it will rise very quickly into our morning sky, providing a mirror-image repeat performance as a morning star for the rest of 2020.
Venus Near Inferior Conjunction from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I wish you all the best and a safe and healthy time in 2020. Take some solace in what the sky can show us and in the beauty of the night.
A well-known comet is making its closest approach to Earth in many years and promises a good show.
Comet Wirtanen is now climbing up the late autumn and winter sky for northern hemisphere viewers, and is already a fine binocular comet. By mid-December it might be bright enough to be visible to the naked eye, but only from a dark rural site.
Discovered in 1948 by Carl Wirtanen at the Lick Observatory, his namesake comet orbits the Sun every 5.4 years. So unlike other recent bright comets that have visited us for the first time, Comet Wirtanen (aka 46P) is well known. It is one of many “Jupiter-family” comets whose orbits have been shaped by the gravity of Jupiter and orbit the Sun about every 6 years.
So since it was discovered, Comet 46P (the 46th comet in the catalog of periodic comets) has been well observed. It isn’t better known because at most returns it never gets bright, and that’s because it never gets closer to the Sun than a little more than the distance from the Earth to the Sun. (Its perihelion distance is 1.06 AU, with 1 AU, or Astronomical Unit, being the average distance from Earth to the Sun.)
However, despite this, we’re expecting – indeed already enjoying – a good show at this return.
Due to the quirk of orbital clockwork, on this return the comet reaches its closest point to the Sun just before it is also closest to Earth.
That puts the comet “just” 11,680,000 kilometres from us at its closest approach to Earth on December 16, four days after perihelion, the point when the comet is closest to the Sun.
Comet Wirtanen will be relatively bright simply by virtue of its proximity.
But it is also an active comet, emitting a lot of gas and dust into a large “coma,” and that’s what we see, not the 1-kilometre-wide icy nucleus itself which is too small and shrouded by the coma. (As a footnote, Comet Wirtanen was to have been the comet that the European Rosetta probe was to visit, but launch delays forced ESA to switch cometary targets.)
Comet Wirtanen is glowing at magnitude 5 to 6, technically making it visible to the naked eye. However, because it is large and diffuse, in practice you need binoculars to see it – now.
But as it approaches Earth and the Sun, Wirtanen will brighten, perhaps to magnitude 3 (the brightest stars are magnitude 0 to 1), making it easier to see with the unaided eye from a dark site.
The one catch is that as it heads toward its brightest in mid-December the waxing Moon also begins to enter the sky and wash out the comet with moonlight.
The first two weeks of December will be prime time for Wirtanen
The first two weeks of December will be prime time for Wirtanen, with a particularly good opportunity coming on the evenings of December 15 and 16 when it shines below the Pleiades star cluster. The gibbous Moon will set about 1 to 2 a.m. with the comet still high enough for a dark sky view and photos.
Those will be great nights to shoot the comet and the cluster with a telephoto lens, provided the camera is on a tracker for untrailed exposures of 1 to 4 minutes. A 135mm to 300mm lens will frame the pair well.
After that, through late December, the bright Moon will interfere with the view. For example, a close approach of the comet near the star Capella on December 23 happens with the nearly Full Moon not far away.
I took the above close-up photo of Comet Wirtanen on December 6. It is a long-exposure telescopic view, but the comet is easy to see with binoculars. It appears visually and photographically as a diffuse fuzzball, with the camera recording a vivid cyan colour from glowing cyanogen and diatomic carbon molecules. You won’t see that colour with your eyes, even in a telescope.
Even at the comet’s best in mid-December any tail might be hard to see and even photograph (it appears faintly above) as it will be both faint and pointed directly away from us because, as comet tails do, it will also be pointed away from the Sun.
Look for a large glow which will be grey to the eye but green to the camera.
While you can just take pictures for yourself, astronomers are asking amateur astrophotographers to participate in a worldwide observing campaign to monitor Comet Wirtanen. More details are available here at wirtanen.astro.umd.edu and at http://aop.astro.umd.edu/
On Wednesday, January 21 look low in the southwest for a conjunction of the Moon and inner planets.
Mercury is ending its brief evening appearance and proximity to Venus. But this week you can still spot it a binocular field or so below Venus as it descends back toward the Sun.
On Wednesday, January 21, look low in the southwest to sight the thin waxing crescent Moon sitting near Venus and Mercury, forming a wide triangle of inner rocky worlds.
The other rocky planet in the inner solar system, Mars, shines higher up in the evening twilight as a moderate brightness reddish star. The next night, January 22, the waxing Moon will sit beside Mars in a wide conjunction.
Catch the Moon-Mercury-Venus trio early, as they will set an hour or so after local sunset.
Barbados is soon to have a new state-of-the-art public observatory for promoting astronomy.
On Saturday night, November 16, I was fortunate and privileged to be the guest speaker at the first event at the newly refurbished Harry Bayley Observatory in Bridgetown, Barbados. A grant from an educational foundation in the UK has allowed the Barbados Astronomical Society to renew the aging 50-year-old facility with a fresh new interior, and all the high-tech fittings of a modern public observatory.
A new dome was lifted into place on top of the 3-storey structure earlier in the week, and the painting and interior finishing was completed just a day or two before my talk, in time for a public RSVP event Saturday night.
I gave a talk on The Amazing Sky, showing images and movies from the November 3 total eclipse, among many other photos of the sights anyone can see in the day and night sky. I gave the same talk twice, to two packed houses of 40 people per session in the main floor meeting room/lecture hall. A wonderful spread of local food and drink was served upstairs.
Lots of work remains to complete the refurbishment but the facility was in good enough shape to host a public event. The official opening is in January.
A new Meade 16-inch telescope on a Software Bisque MX2 mount is on its way for installation later this year, equipped with the latest robotic control and digital cameras for public viewing. A hydrogen-alpha solar telescope will also be part of the arsenal of equipment.
This night, members set up a portable Celestron 8-inch telescope outside for viewing the Moon and Jupiter. In contrast to viewing at home at this time of year, observing from 13° North latitude was in shorts and shirt-sleeves.
It was a terrific evening and I’m pleased to have been part of the relaunching of the Observatory and astronomy activities on the island. Many thanks go to my host on the island, Greg Merrick, for making the evening – and my stay this week – possible.