What’s that bright ‘star’ in the morning sky?

A brilliant “morning star” in the sky before dawn is beginning to catch the eye of early risers. In fact, it is not a star at all but the bright planet Venus.

Venus over the sea
Venus shines brightly over the sea in the morning twilight on 11 February, 2022, at Walmer, UK. Image credit: Paul Sutherland

Venus moved into the morning sky in early January, 2022, after dazzling onlookers with a brilliant appearance in the evening sky over previous months, when it resembled a bright beacon after dusk.

On 8 January, Venus passed through a point on the near side of Sun known as Inferior Conjunction. Because the orbits of Venus and Earth are slightly tilted to one another, it did not pass directly in front of the Sun.

Venus is our closest planetary neighbour, and can come between us and the Sun. It is the second planet from the Sun, after Mercury.

In the months before Inferior Conjunction, Venus’s phase through a telescope changed from a small, gibbous disk to a narrow crescent, like the Moon. Only the inner, or inferior, planets can show us crescent phases.

Crescent Venus
On 13 January, 2022, just five days after Venus passed through inferior conjunction into the morning sky, it appears as a crescent. This looks fatter than it really is, due to refraction and its low elevation over the sea. FujiFilm X-T10 camera with Sigma 600mm mirror lens. Image credit: Paul Sutherland                                                         

Now it is rising before the Sun again as a brilliant “morning star”, and its crescent phase will gradually change to a smaller gibbous disk again as it heads back to the part of its orbit on the far side of the Sun. Even binoculars or a small telescope will show you these phases, though be careful not to use them if the Sun is still up and nearby.

This morning apparition of Venus is a very much better one for southern hemisphere observers than for those of us at northern latitudes. That is because the ecliptic, or the plane of the Earth’s orbit in the sky, will be at a shallow angle to the horizon for the next few month in the hours before sunrise for northerners, but steeper from the southern countries.

The other planets also lie approximately in this same plane, so Venus will never get more than a few degrees above the horizon for observers in the north, even as it moves further out from the Sun in the sky.

Venus in the Pleiades
A montage of photos taken over four nights from April 2-5, 2020, shows Venus’s passage across the Pleiades star cluster. Image credit: Paul Sutherland

By contrast, the situation is a lot happier for skywatchers in southern countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil and Chile. From such locations, the ecliptic will stand at a steep angle to the ecliptic during the early months of 2022, and Venus will be high in the sky before dawn.

Venus moves gradually out from the Sun to its farthest point, which is known as its Greatest Elongation West, on 20 March. Its phase will then be more like a half-moon.

After that, it begins to head back in towards the Sun as viewed from Earth, but it does not reach Superior Conjunction, the point when it lies on the far side of the Sun, until 22 October, 2022.

Venus becomes so bright that it attracts the attention of people who don’t usually notice the sky, and it has often been mistaken for a UFO! This year its brightness will increase from -3.9 to -4.3 in October.

Crescent Moon and Venus
Venus, on the right, shows a crescent phase just like the neighbouring Moon in this shot taken in 2015 when it was in the morning sky. Image credit: Paul Sutherland

Venus can shine as brightly as  -4.6, using the astronomer’s scale of magnitude, making it the brightest natural object in the sky after the Sun and the Moon.

That means it will come into view before any of the stars when in the evening sky, and stays visible after stars have disappeared in the morning twilight. Indeed, under perfectly clear skies, Venus is bright enough to be seen in daylight. But do NOT try to view it with binoculars while the Sun is above the horizon as an accidental view of the Sun through them could damage your eyesight.

Related: How to observe Venus

Related: Venus – our neighbour from hell

Venus through a telescope
Venus photographed during a previous apparition, using a Meade ETX-90 telescope as the camera’s lens. It shows a half-moon shape. Image credit: Paul Sutherland

You can never see Venus in a midnight sky because it never gets more than about 47° from the Sun. This means it can’t set more than about about 4 hours after the Sun or rise more than 4 hours before it when it is in the morning sky.

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.