Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor is about to show off, undergoing an intriguing transition that will be easy and fun to follow for novice sky gazers between now and early January.
This month, Venus has been sinking lower and lower toward the southwestern horizon every evening near sunset. It’s also getting closer to Earth every night, so it appears to be getting larger. With binoculars, you can see its crescent shape facing the sun, the same way sunlight illuminates a crescent moon. On Jan. 3, a faint crescent moon will appear just to the left of Venus.
Venus, the second-brightest object in the nighttime sky after the moon, will then disappear as it moves into inferior conjunction, meaning it will be moving between the sun and the Earth. On Jan. 8, it will be in a straight line between the Earth and the sun. A few days later, it will reappear in the morning sky around sunrise, rising later and later in subsequent mornings.
“There’s an eight-day period where it is lost in the brightness of the sun as it goes from being in the evening sky to being in the morning sky,” said John Keller, director of the Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado. “If you see Venus in the evening on the third of January, on the morning of the 12th or 13th of January you might just catch it on the other side of the sky in the morning. And by the end of January, it will be high and brilliant in the morning sky.”
Venus is the planet most like the Earth in size. Ancient Romans named it after their god of love, but ancient Mayans also paid it a lot of attention, especially when it did what it is about to do now.
“In Mayan culture, Kukulkan, a feathered serpent god associated with Venus, passes into the underworld and is then reborn in those eight days,” Keller said. “Every time Venus goes in front of the sun, there’s a death and rebirth myth associated with this passage from the evening to the morning sky.”
The winter solstice will occur Tuesday, meaning it’s the day with the shortest amount of sunlight for the year in the Northern Hemisphere, just over nine hours and 21 minutes. On that day, the sun will rise at 7:17 a.m. and set at 4:38 p.m.
At sunset that night, three planets will be visible in the southwestern sky in a more-or-less straight line. Venus will be the lowest and, as mentioned, will be very bright. On a diagonal line to the left, Saturn and Jupiter will also be visible, appearing about equidistant from each other.
That’s only from the vantage point of Earth, of course. Right now, Venus is 29 million miles from earth, Jupiter is 504 million miles away and Saturn is 989 miles away.
Venus is the second planet from our sun. According to a NASA science page, it has a thick, toxic atmosphere and is covered by yellow clouds of sulfuric acid. It’s the hottest planet in the solar system at 900 degrees, because of its proximity to the sun and those clouds that trap heat. The surface is rust-colored and is strewn with mountains and volcanoes, some of which may still be active. It revolves the opposite way from Earth, meaning if you could see the sunrise there, you’d need to look to the west. It’s the only planet in our solar system that revolves that way.
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