It's just a phase

By Phil Plait | March 17, 2009 2:30 pm

If you go outside just after sunset and look west, you’ll see a brilliant white star hanging over the horizon. But that’s no star, that’s Venus. Right now Venus is incredibly bright, even brighter than it has been the past few weeks. That’s because it’s getting closer to the Earth as it rounds the Sun, about to pass us like one racecar whooshing past another.

If you think about it, Venus is almost directly between us and the Sun right now. That means we’re looking mostly at its unlit half; the lit half is facing the Sun, and we can’t see it. Or more accurately, we only see a little sliver of it, making Venus crescent-shaped. When Venus is on the other side of the Sun from us, we’re looking at the lit half, so it looks full.

The funny thing is, even though it’s a thin crescent right now, it’s a lot closer to us so it looks bigger. That’s why it’s brighter now; we’re actually seeing it occupy more real estate in the sky, so it’s really bright.

Crescent Venus from Some Canadian Skeptic

In fact, it’s so big that I just saw the crescent easily in my binoculars. And Steve, aka Some Canadian Skeptic, got a great shot of it using nothing more than a camera with a telephoto, as you can see in this picture here (click to embiggen).

Because Venus is close to us right now (about 45 million km or 27 million miles) it appears to be moving rapidly across the sky; every day you’ll see it getting lower in the sky, and in a few days it’ll be so low after sunset it’ll be lost in the glare. So take the chance now! Go out and take a look, because it’ll be a couple of months before it’s visible again… as a morning star in the east.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (17)

  1. José

    I never understood how someone could mistake Venus for a space ship. Then the other night I was driving home on a westerly route, and there was Venus appearing to move around, even dipping in and out of the trees. I wonder if most Venus/UFO sightings are made by people in their cars.

  2. Cheyenne

    As soon as my Galileoscope arrives it looks like I’ll have my first target to check out.

  3. Donnie B.

    Phil, I think it’s this week in which one can see Venus as an evening and morning star on the same day. Hang on, I’ll look it up…

    No, it’s next week — from the 23rd to the 27th — the best day being the 25th, where it’s 5 degrees above the horizon at both sunrise and sunset.

    That only happens once every eight years. Hope you have clear skies and the chance to see it.

  4. Hey Steve, grats on the photo notoriety!

  5. IVAN3MAN

    @ José,

    According to Wikipedia, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter reported having seen a UFO in 1969, which later analysis suggested was probably the planet Venus, and countless other people have mistaken Venus for something more exotic. I suppose it’s easy enough to do in the early hours when someone is totally pissed out of their mind.

  6. Rob

    Very cool. I would never have thought you could capture Venus like that.

  7. Well done Steve! Wish there wasn’t so much light pollution here in Qatar, I’d love to get a look!

  8. José

    @IVAN3MAN
    I’ll add that I hope anyone who has mistaken Venus for a UFO was in motion at the time. If they weren’t, I still don’t have a clue how they’d be confused.

  9. Trebuchet

    Here in the Great Northwet, the sky is a uniform shade of gray. Venus is a hoax, I tell you!

    But I wish I could see it all the same.

  10. JC

    LarianLeQuella, you could probably get a decent look anyway. I’m in the University area in Seattle and (when it’s not cloudy…) Venus is easily visible in the evenings. It’s amazing how incredibly bright it is, actually.

  11. Managed to see the crescent tonight, though it necessitated a little walk as I’m on a hill facing East :) That happens a lot, and I guess it keeps me fit!

    I really have to get a tripod mount for my binocs. I could see the crescent, but sadly not in a stable way. Thanks for the tip though Phil!

  12. feroxx

    I just watched the ISS and the Shuttle a few hours ago (2 moving dots in the sky exactly where heavensabove predicted them :D ), and just before that I looked at Venus through a spotting scope, it was really a beautifull thin and crisp cescent. Always cool when the little dots turn into actuall objects.

  13. Fozzillo

    Have you ever searched for “bright star” on youtube?
    there’s an army of people sharing blurry, shaken, videos of Venus and wondering if it’s an UFO or NIBIRU.
    One guy says it’s an UFO masked as Venus.
    Other say it’s too bright to be Venus, too in the North, too big.
    I tried to convince some of them, it’s an hard work!

  14. Ben

    Here’s one I took of Venus on March 6th, when it had a little more body to it…

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/fyngyrz/3334204031/

    …that’s with a Canon 50D DSLR and 560 mm worth of lens.

  15. David Ratnasabapathy

    That is amazing! Another planet so close that binoculars can show the crescent… oh wow. Cheers BA.

  16. It’s been cloudy a lot lately so I haven’t had a chance to see the night sky much lately so when I looked out last night I was really surprised just how bright Venus was. I actually wasn’t quite sure it was Venus because of the brightness, I wondered if maybe the life flight helicopter was in the area because it has very bright lights for finding a landing spot. Of course it wasn’t moving at the right speed so I figured out it was Venus and grabbed my binoculars to take a look.

  17. I took all three of my kids out on the back porch last night to point it out. The 11yo found it more interesting than the 3yo. I set up the tripod and camera but none of the shots came out clear enough to post.

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