The planet Venus is, at the time of writing, shining brilliantly in the pre-dawn sky. This world, the next closest to the Sun after the Earth, is fascinating to view through a small telescope because it shows phases like the Moon.
You will not see anything of its surface, however, because Venus is permanently shrouded in cloud. By all accounts that surface is as close a place to hell as can be imagined, which may seem surprising considering its jewel-like beauty.
Venus’s clouds are highly reflective of sunlight which is why it shines so brightly. It appears as the third brightest object in the heavens after the Sun and Moon. It is so bright, in fact, that you do not need to rise at an unearthly hour to see it – Venus is visible in broad daylight to the unaided eye.
This may come as a surprise because we are not used to glancing up and seeing our neighbour planet in a daytime sky. The problem is that it is not obvious when the Sun is drowning out everything else in the sky and so you need to know exactly where to look. It is also difficult for the eyes to focus on the planet when they are just gazing into an indistinct sky-blue canvas.
I have followed Venus through the daytime sky on a number of occasions. It has certainly been easier in parts of the world with clear blue skies, such as Provence in the south of France, rather than the UK with its customary milky skies, but even under such conditions it is possible thanks to Venus’s brightness.
One way to keep Venus in view is to wait for a time when the Moon lies close to it in the sky. A planetarium-style computer program can help here – fire it up and see where Venus lies relative to the horns of the Moon (which will always be a crescent if near the planet). Because of its size, the Moon is a lot easier to spot in daylight, so it can help to find the Moon and then use it to locate Venus when nearby.
One time that I used this technique was on June 18, 2007, shortly after Venus was actually occulted by, or hidden behind, the Moon from the UK, and the planet was an easy object to spot. The accompanying photo was taken a couple of hours after the occultation ended as the Moon was moving away.
One interesting observation made clear in the photo is to note how much brighter Venus is, area for area, than the Moon. Our natural satellite’s dark, rocky surface is a much poorer reflector of sunlight than Venus’s clouds. We should be grateful for that or we would see little of the sky’s fainter inhabitants when the Moon was in the sky!
If you are looking for Venus in daylight, then hiding the glare of the Sun behind a building or tree will help. And the obligatory warning to beginners: NEVER sweep for Venus with binoculars in daylight if there is any danger of accidentally pointing them at the Sun! You could be blinded.
Related: Venus – our neighbour from hell
★ Keep up with space news and observing tips. Click here to sign up for alerts to our latest reports. No spam ever - we promise!