The planet Venus has returned to the early morning sky and has established itself as a dazzling morning lantern, emerging into view from beyond the east-southeast horizon before 5:00 a.m. local standard time. Just three weeks ago, on January 11, was the day of its inferior conjunction — when it passed between the Sun and Earth and made its transition from an evening to a morning object.
A week later it had moved far enough away from the Sun’s vicinity so that it was rising more than an hour before sunrise. A member of New York’s Amateur Observers’ Society was one of the first to catch sight of it early on Sunday morning, January 19:
“I got up to answer the call of nature a little after 6 a.m. and looked out my southeast window to the approaching dawn. In the twilight, I spotted a bright object just a few degrees above the horizon. My guess was that it was Venus appearing on its eastward rise, which it turned out to be.”
And now Venus is much easier to sight, rising more than two hours before the Sun.
Interestingly, for about the past week or so, I’ve been getting inquiries from those who arise early in the morning, en route to work and school, asking what is that “dazzling white star,” which now precedes the rising Sun? Perhaps, they were standing at a bus stop or a train platform when their attention was drawn to Venus. Often, they will follow up with the comment, “Just a week ago, it wasn’t there!” I suspect, I’ll be getting an increasing number of such inquiries in the coming days ahead.
On Saturday, February 15, Venus comes up in total darkness, about an hour before the first glimmer of dawn, while shining at its greatest brilliancy (magnitude —4.9). To give you an idea of just how radiant Venus will be at that time, it will appear to gleam 25 times brighter than Sirius, the brightest of all stars. In fact, it’s so bright even now, that you might try sighting it on very clear days with the naked eye after sunrise. If you can keep track of where it is through sunup, you should still be able to see it as a tiny white “speck” against the blue daytime sky.
As a bonus, a lovely crescent Moon slides to the lower left of Venus on Wednesday morning, February 26. During March and April, Venus will appear to slowly lower a bit in altitude in the predawn sky, but then from late April through about the middle of August, it will appear to rise at approximately the same time as the beginning of morning twilight, roughly two hours before sunrise.
So it pretty much will remain a fixture in our morning sky from now, right on through at least the middle of the summer.
Now is also a fine time to examine the crescent of Venus in a telescope or even a pair of binoculars. A steady mounting for the binoculars — even just bracing them against the side of a tree — can make all the difference in the world.
There are, in fact, some individuals with such acute vision who claim that they can actually see the crescent of Venus without any optical aid. If you’d like to test your own perception of vision on Venus, the best time to try it would be during bright twilight, say 15 to 30 minutes before sunrise. At that time, Venus will appear with far less glare against the background sky, giving your eyes a better opportunity to perceive its shape.
Whenever Venus appears as a thin crescent, I often like to relate a very amusing story related by George Lovi (1939-1993), who was a well-known astronomy lecturer and author. One night, while running a public viewing night at the Brooklyn College Observatory in New York, the telescope was pointed right at Venus, then displaying its delicate crescent shape. Yet one student gazing through the telescope eyepiece stubbornly insisted he was really looking at the Moon.
When Mr. Lovi commented that the Moon wasn’t even in the sky, the student replied, “So what? Doesn’t a telescope show you things you can’t see without it?”