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

A brilliant star in the sky before dawn is attracting a lot of attention from early risers. In fact, it is not a star at all but the bright planet Venus.

The Moon and Venus pictured close in the sky on March 28, 2020, from Walmer Kent. Image credit: Paul Sutherland

It moved into the morning sky in early June, 2020, after dazzling onlookers with a brilliant appearance in the evening sky for the first half of the year, resembling a bright beacon.

On June 3, Venus came between the Sun and the Earth, a point known as Inferior Conjunction. Because our orbits are slightly tilted to one another, it did not pass directly in front of the Sun, so no transit was seen.

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

In the early months of 2020, Venus’s phase through a telescope changed from a small, gibbous disk to a larger but narrowing crescent, like the Moon. Only the inner, or inferior, planets can show us crescent phases.

In early April, 2020, astronomers watched Venus travel across the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, which is one of the best-known star clusters in the night sky. Its movement from one night to the next was very evident.

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

Now it is rising before after the Sun as a brilliant “morning star”, and its crescent phase will gradually grow wider as it recedes from Earth to move round to the far side of the Sun. Even binoculars or a small telescope will show you these phases.

Venus moves quite rapidly away from the Sun to its farthest point, which is known as its Greatest Elongation West, on August 13. It will then lie 46° from the Sun, and its phase will be more like a half-moon.

After that, it gradually heads 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 March 26, 2021.

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!

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, 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 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.

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.

Related: What else is in this month’s night sky?


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