The Moon and Venus, sittin' in a tree

By Phil Plait | February 28, 2009 11:02 am

Last night, the Moon and Venus passed each other in the sky, getting pretty close together — about a degree apart, or twice the Moon’s width. The Moon was a lovely thin crescent, and Venus shone brilliantly, making them a great target for astrophotos. I took a few dozen shots, but here is my favorite (click to embiggenate):

This was a three-second exposure I took around 6:15 p.m. local time. I love how you can see the unlit portion of the Moon… unlit by the Sun, that is. The reason you can see it is because it’s being lit by the Earth; in the Moon’s sky the Earth is as much as 50 times brighter than the full Moon. So that lunar landscape is actually reflecting that light back to you, though far dimmer than the sunlit surface.

There are also two airplanes in the picture. One is easy, the other is hiding. See them both?

You can see two dark smudges over my roof, too. Those are caused by dust and dirt on the digital detector inside my camera. I tried to clean it out the other day, taking the camera apart into about a dozen pieces, but couldn’t dislodge them. Because they sit on the detector itself, they are wildly out of focus and look like big fuzzy blotches. This happens in astronomical detectors too, and there is a process (called flat fielding) to remove them. However, that’s a lot of effort to undertake and I don’t have the time or energy. I’m not all that gifted with Photoshop (which is obvious if you’re a regular reader here), and I think removing them when the sky brightness has such a large gradient would be tedious.

Still, the lesson here is that point-and-shoot cameras can take lovely photos.

Here are two more; both taken after the one above (you can see how the Moon and Venus have set a little bit in the intervening time). The one on the left is also a three-second exposure, but taken later when the sky was darker. The one on the right is a 10 second exposure taken even later, but the longer exposure allowed the sky to look brighter. If you look carefully you can even see features on the "dark" portion of the Moon.

If you have a cheap digital camera and a tripod, you can take pictures like this, or even better. I really suggest you try. Orion is up high now right after sunset, and makes a perfect beginner’s target, with lots of bright stars and a very recognizable pattern. Feel free to experiment: long exposures, short ones, different aperture settings, maybe even using a flash to illuminate nearby trees. When I was starting out in high school, I had to use film, which was expensive and took forever to process, so I was conservative when fooling around. Now with digital cameras, taking 40 pictures is as easy as taking one! It just costs time, and you might stumble on an idea that makes your picture really beautiful.

Go! Take pictures!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (35)


    Venus looks pretty cool right now where I am!

  2. Nice pictures! I was going to try to get some shots of my own last night, but alas it was cloudy and overcast. :(

  3. Didac

    Clouds over Venus here in BCN. And over the Moon also. However, it is very funny to compare Venus (western sky) to Sirius (eastern sky). Sirius is so dim to Venus those days, that it is like comparing a Satyr to Hyperion.

  4. mus

    I think removing them when the sky brightness has such a large gradient would be tedious.
    Nah, it’s a piece of cake just use the healing tool and the clone tool (for the area around the branches, which I didn’t fix very well) I also reduced some of the noise in your pic-

    I took some pictures myself (which I haven’t edited), but they’re not all that great.

  5. I didn’t take any photos, but I was awestruck at how brilliant this was. Really, it was quite spectacular.


  6. mus

    Weird, the links aren’t working. Let’s see if linking to my album works-

  7. Ibeechu

    Lovely pictures, Phil. I took your first picture into Photoshop and tried fixing it up for about 3 minutes. Hope it helps!

  8. I’d take astronomy photos if I didn’t live in a dense urban environment with horrible light pollution. Sigh.

  9. @fluffy: That’s the beauty of astronomical events like these. Both the moon and Venus are visible from urban area, and the light pollution can actually be a boon to some creative shots. Find an interesting building or scene with the pair in the background sky, bracket some exposures between one and five seconds. Experiment with maybe moving cards in the foreground, or people walking by illuminated by the flash. All you need is a middle of the road digital camera that allows longer exposures and a tripod. Lacking a tripod, set the camera on something sturdy, like a mailbox. Use the self timer so that there’s a delay between when you push the button and the shutter fires so the vibrations from hitting the button get dampened.

  10. Al

    Sadly, even the most expensive digital camera can’t get an image through several thousand feet of cloud…. grrr…

  11. Kathy A.

    I got a great view of this pair as I left work, and the minute I got home I grabbed my camera and tripod. Stepped out back, and the clouds came in. Stayed out for half an hour because I kept getting teased with glimpses, but never got a decent shot. :(

    One of the best tips I ever got about photographing the moon is to remember that although the sky is dark, the moon is in sunlight. Your camera will want to expose for the dark sky, but you’ll get a lot better picture if you underexpose a couple of stops.

  12. Mike

    I waited a little later to take mine, because I wanted tree branchs in the shot. Unfortunately some high clouds came in and I didn’t get quite what I wanted. I still like it, but it could have been better.

  13. Nice pics, Phil. I got a couple but this one was the most interesting IMO:
    Moon, Venus and an Orb!

  14. I did also take picture of this. The conjuction was a little bit different from here (Sweden). Look at my pictures here:

  15. I got my photo last night as well. I got home a little later so it was darker out. This is my favorite.

  16. Buzz Parsec

    Oops! Didn’t read this post until today, not that it mattered because it was totally overcast last night…

    But did any take advantage of this to try to see Venus in broad daylight (before sun set?) The one time I managed this was on an early winter morning a few years ago when I saw the waning crescent Moon very close to Venus in the pre-dawn sky. An hour or two later, after sunrise, I went out again (bitterly cold) to see if I could see Venus. It took about 5 minutes to find the Moon (it was a very thin crescent), but then I spotted Venus next to it in just a few seconds. I was very suprised by how bright it was, once I saw it.

    It may be easier to do this in the morning, the way I did it, because you can have a good idea of the relative locations of the Moon and Venus if you’ve just seen them. (I new to look to the right of the Moon about a pinky-width and just s smidge below. Pinky-width and smidge are technical astronomical terms.)

  17. bigjohn756

    The ‘hidden’ airplane(UFO?) is maybe 6 degrees below the Moon and to the left of a vertical line beneath the Moon. It is in the second from the right tree branches. Unfortunately, it was cloudy here and I couldn’t see this loveliness.

  18. Steve Ulven

    I saw it last night around 6:30 central time and it looked amazing. They weren’t quite that close, but the entire time I couldn’t stop thinking how much it reminded me of the flag of Islam, which was probably designed from a similar event. It was very cool. I’m about to go out again, hope they are still somewhat close.

  19. Um, Phil? If the defect is on the detector, it will be in perfect focus. The detector is the focal plane, pretty much by definition. So either you have some blobby smears of goober on your detector, or the stuff is somewhere else (which might explain why cleaning the detector didn’t help).

    Still, nice shot of the ghostly glow of Earthly luminescence. (Why yes, I do have a Rush lyric for every occasion, why do you ask?)

  20. Lisa

    @Johnny Ahhhh, Earthshine. My husband just got a new DVD today with RUSH vids on it and we were watching it while I read your post.

    Tried to get some pictures when Jupiter and Saturn were close in the sky. My first attempt was pretty bad, but I had fun showing my 6 yr old son and discussing it with him. I would have liked to get and try again, but the weather is cloudy here in Atlanta. We might even get some snow tomorrow. Which means the stores will be out of bread and milk. Why do people think bread and mild will bet them through a snow storm? Please keep in mind that snow lasts only a couple of days, at worst, around here.

  21. Polly

    Here’s mine:

    It was very bright and lovely here in Northern California.

  22. Bearguin

    I caught this the other night as well, but no pictures.

    I recall the moon crescent being much smaller than what is in the pictures. Is this an artifact of a long exposure?

    It was really cool to see. The two of them right next to each other. Stood and watched for a couple of minutes before I got too cold and went inside.

  23. Papa Surf

    I had light clouds in my area that I think actually made my photo more interesting than it otherwise would have been.

  24. Joe

    Beautiful pictures, gives me the feeling to have experienced the view myself a little too.

    Over here in The Netherlands the sky was solid overcast for the whole day and night, really too bad ;-(

  25. alpz

    Amazing PICZ!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  26. IBY

    Crap! Delaware had a whole lotta clouds! Darn you, clouds! *shake fist*

  27. Sir Patrick Spens

    Your nice photo of the Earth-lit portion between horns of the of the Sun-lit Moon reminded me of a question we debated back in high school. According to the old Scottish ballad Sir Patrick Spens, when such phenomenon is clearly visible a storms may be approaching.

    I argued then something like this: when a cyclone is moving from the North West toward the still sunny British Isles, the large cloud cover may add a few percentage points to the Earth’s albedo and amplify the effect. Of course one also has to have a new Moon properly placed somewhere.

    Here is the relevant part of the ballad:

    “I saw the new moon late yestreen
    With the old moon in her arm;
    And if we go to sea, master,
    I fear we’ll come to harm.”

    They had not sailed a league, a league,
    A league but barely three,
    When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud,
    And gurly grew the sea.

    Unfortunately I was never good enough at this kind of science to prove that such observation is real and not just an impression.

    But you guys are much better versed, so I would love to hear what you think.

  28. Polly

    You guys’ photos are so stunning!


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