You couldn’t help noticing Venus and the Pleiades last night glimmering in the west at dusk. Tonight they’ll be nearly as close. If you have a small telescope, take a closer look and see if you can discern the planet’s small, not-quite-round disk.
Venus passes through phases just like the moon and has surprised more than a few first time viewers who thought that’s what they were looking at. A moon in miniature but shiny white and without a bump or crater to mare its smooth and perfect “skin”. Unlike the moon, Venus is 100% cloaked in clouds. From its surface you wouldn’t see a single star not just for a week or two but for as long as you’d live. If there were ever a nightmare planet for amateur astronomy, this is it.
Venus orbits the Sun inside of Earth’s orbit — the reason we see lunar-like phases — with a period of 225 days. That makes a Venusian year only 0.6 times as long as an Earth year. For those who love birthdays then, Venus offers nearly twice as many as our plodding planet.
Through April, Venus appears as small waxing gibbous moon through a telescope, but as it catches up to Earth, it will gradually slim down to a half-moon and finally a crescent. Because it’s approaching our planet, its apparent size will also increase. By crescent phase, Venus’ shape is easily visible in little more than 10x binoculars.
While Venus is 106 million miles (170 million km) from us today, that’s peanuts compared to its neighbor, the Pleiades, which beckons from a distance of 444 light years or 2.66 quadrillion miles.
I can vouch that the northern lights remained active all the way into twilight this morning. Even with the last quarter moon shining, a rayless hump of aurora glowed brightly in the lower half of the northern sky until finally quenched by dawn. Chances for seeing northern lights drop off this evening, but there may still be some action. Once again, watch for a glow in the north as soon as the sky gets dark.
Last night, a low auroral arc minded its own business for a very long time before surging into activity. I stood out on a dirt road somewhere north and watched the slow, slow process unfold to the sound of a single saw-whet owl’s relentless peeping.