A brilliant “star” has appeared in the evening sky that is attracting a lot of attention. Only it is not really a star but Venus, our closest planetary neighbour between us and the Sun.
Venus has actually been lurking around after sunset for several weeks now but has stuck too close to the horizon to be seen well from mid-northern latitudes.
Recently however the planet has been climbing higher in the sky as it travels northwards along the ecliptic. It means Venus will make a wonderful spectacle in the evening sky in the weeks ahead, and makes a great “Christmas star” to mark the season.
Look out for Venus as soon as it begins to get dark. Its brightness, which astronomers call its magnitude, with a value of around -4, means that it will come into view before any of the stars. In fact, under perfectly clear skies, Venus is bright enough to be seen in daylight.
If you have a telescope, then twilight is a good time to look at Venus through a telescope. That is because it will appear less dazzling against the brighter sky than against a darker background. Wait until the Sun has set as it is important that you don’t accidentally point your telescope at the Sun which would damage your eyesight.
Even a small telescope will reveal that Venus is not a point of light but has a measurable disk, and one which shows phases just like the Moon does. At the moment, it resembles a gibbous Moon, but the phase is reducing and at the start of January it will resemble a “half moon” in your telescope. Over the following weeks it will brighten further and show a crescent shape as it moves closer to Earth and between us and the Sun.
You can photograph Venus easily thanks to its brightness. Choose a nice foreground, such as some trees silhouetted against the twilight sky, and even a snapshot camera or smartphone should be able to record it. Hold the camera, or phone, steady to avoid camera-shake. If you have one, a photographic tripod will be useful.
A particularly good photographic opportunity comes at the start of the New Year because the crescent Moon will lie close to Venus on the evenings of the 1st and 2nd of January 2017.