It’s one thing to talk about going out to see something and another to see it. Occasionally I’ll write about something in the sky I know is happening but I’ve yet to see. You may remember a couple weeks back we talked about the return of Venus to the evening. Although it’s the brightest planet Venusstarts each new evening cycle demurely as if reluctant to return.
For weeks the planet hovers near the sunset horizon and sets early. That means it’s only visible for a brief interval after sunset in a bright, twilit sky low to the horizon. Since the horizon is often obscured by haze or cloud, and contrast between Venus and the bright sky is minimal, the planet can be very difficult to spot. You have to give it time to climb up and away from the sun.
That time finally arrived for me last Saturday night (Oct. 19), more than 2 months after it first entered the evening sky on August 14. With sunset that evening at 6:14 p.m. and Venus no more than 6° high — three fingers held together horizontally at arm’s length — I knew there wouldn’t be much time. Binoculars always help in finding low planets and thin crescent moons. I grabbed mine and drove a field with a good view to the west.
As with any type of celestial viewing you first have to focus the binoculars at infinity. I used a bank of clouds. I knew where Venus would be by using the free Star Chart app (for Android or iPhone). But any star app will do, and there are many! Then I looked a short distance above the southwestern horizon and bingo. I found it! Just like that. A white diamond gleaming between dark, slabby clouds. The time was just 7 minutes past sunset. It was almost too easy.
Once I knew precisely in which direction to look I lowered the binoculars and try to spy Venus without optical aid. At 6:30 p.m., 15 minutes after sunset, I literally saw the light. A very tiny light more like a single spark. Welcome, Venus! I kept the planet in view for about 15 minutes as it sunk deeper and deeper into the rosy orange twilight. At 6:45 a line of distant trees swallowed the planet whole. End of story.
In astronomy it’s not always about the grand appearances of things like Saturn’s rings or giant craters on the moon. It’s more often the small stuff you make time for. Little appointments like meeting a new planet that just moved into the neighborhood or catching sight of Vega flirting with tree branches during a night walk.
If you’d like to find Venus, either use the chart above or download Star Chart. Bring binoculars. Then pick a nice clear evening at a location with a view as far down to the western horizon as possible. You can find the your local sunset time here.
People are always encouraging us to stay hydrated. I would encourage you to hydrate with starlight as well and discover the simple joys of your neighborhood night sky.