Venus Becomes a Crescent

Even when Venus is high in the sky and well placed for observation I will seldom take the effort of turning a telescope towards the planet. Why? Because Venus is pretty boring to look at. Perpetually cloud covered it has all the detail of a cue ball. It is a white disk with nothing of note to be seen. Yeah, pretty boring. Now turn the telescope to Jupiter.

Crescent Venus
Venus approaching inferior conjunction, 24Dec2013
One exception to this occurs when Venus is approaching, or just emerging from inferior conjunction. As the planet passes between the Earth and the Sun we are looking at the nighttime side of the planet, with only a little of the daytime side to be seen. As a result Venus will appear as a brilliant crescent.

This begins as the planet passes maximum eastern elongation, about two months before inferior conjunction. At this point the planet is seen from the side with respect to the sunlight, the planet will be about half illuminated. In the weeks after maximum elongation the planet will appear ever more crescent.

Venus 28May2012
Venus on 28May2012, about 12°44′ from the Sun
The last weeks before conjunction, as Venus is very low in the sunset, or the first weeks after conjunction as it sits very low in the dawn are the most interesting. During this time the planet is a very fine crescent, quite a beautiful sight in the telescope. Many observers, including myself, have made a point to observe Venus at this time, the one time this planet really becomes interesting to view.

Imaging Venus in the Daytime
Imaging Venus in the daytime a mere 12°44′ from the Sun.
As the planet is quite low in the sky it makes it a challenging telescopic target and distortion by the atmosphere can be troubling, blurring the view.

It is possible to enjoy this sight in the daytime, while the planet is high in the sky, the seeing can be better and the view sharper. Of course this also occurs when the planet is near the Sun, thus extreme caution should be practiced at the telescope to avoid any direct sunlight and possible eye damage.

Planetary Drawings by Galileo
A page from Galileo’s 1623 treatise The Assayer—Il Saggiatore
The phases of Venus are quite interesting from a historical standpoint. The phases of Venus clearly show that the planet revolves around the Sun. The phases were one of the primary arguments used by Galileo in his treatise The Assayer—Il Saggiatore published in 1623, where he lays out many of his ideas on science itself and how observation and experimentation should be primary.

While the the evidence challenged prevailing ideas of the time, some astronomers attempted to explain the phases of Venus by any other means to preserve their Earth centered universe, which led to rather tortured models of planetary motion. But it was clear to most that Galileo was right, the simple and elegant answer was that the Sun lay at the center. The orbits of Mercury and Venus, the phases, along with other observations like the moons of Jupiter, were hard evidence that few could ignore.

In 2017, eastern elongation occurred on January 12th. By now Venus has begun to show a substantial crescent, about 30% illuminated if you look today, Feb 12th. Over the next few weeks as the planet sinks into the sunset, the crescent aspect will thin dramatically.

By the end of February the planet will be only 17% illuminated, another week after that it becomes only 11%, by which time the planet will be difficult to spot in the sunset. Inferior conjunction will occur on March 25th. A couple weeks later and it will be possible to spot the planet in the dawn and observe the now thickening crescent.

Venus Events for 2017

  Date UT Separation Mag
Maximum Elongation Jan 12 47.1°E -4.4
Inferior Conjunction Mar 25    
Maximum Elongation Jun 3 45.9°W -4.3
Source: NASA Sky Calendar