Venus Shines Even Brighter And Higher This Month
Last updated 3/2/2020 at 3:23pm
While Venus doesn’t sing soprano, this beautiful planet is certainly the prima donna in our evening sky this month. Having passed behind the sun in superior conjunction back on Aug.13, she is approaching earth as she swings around the sun. She is now on the east side of the sun as viewed from earth and so is our “Evening Star” in the west after sunset. As she approaches us, she appears larger and brighter, especially when viewed through a telescope or even a pair of binoculars. If you try this, notice what Galileo saw about four centuries ago; Venus shows phases. As she comes closer, we see less of her sunlit side and more of the dark side of the planet. But, since she is coming closer to us, these two effects partially offset each other. For example, in March her apparent brightness will continue to increase into April. Not only that, the angle between Venus and the sun will reach its maximum angle, 46.1 degrees, known as greatest elongation, on March 24. What this means to the casual viewer is Venus will be far enough from the sun that it will set over four hours after our central star and will shine brightly in a totally dark sky — a beautiful sight! Following greatest elongation, Venus will appear closer to the sun and lower in the sky until it passes by the sun in inferior conjunction on June 3.
What about the other four naked-eye planets? All are in the morning sky although Mercury, which passed by the sun on Feb. 25, appears still too close to the sun for observation. Look for it in the morning twilight next week. Right now, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are all in a line in the southeast before sunrise. They will be joined by the waning crescent moon later in the month and we will cover those encounters in the next column.
Mercury is lost to sight. It is now diving into the evening twilight and, on Feb. 25, will pass by the sun in inferior conjunction. Look for it in the predawn sky next month.
Venus passed by the sun on Feb. 25. Still too deep in the morning twilight to be spotted. Look for it to emerge soon and appear as a morning planet through April.
Venus is absolutely brilliant in the evening sky…truly, our “Evening Star.” Continues to brighten and stand higher in the west in the early evening. Use binoculars to notice its changing phases.
Mars is well up in the predawn sky. It currently lies above and to the right of bright Jupiter in the southeast. But this will be changed as it passes Jupiter and Saturn in two weeks.
Jupiter is now our “Morning Star” in the southeast before sunrise. Sandwiched between the dimmer Mars and Saturn above the “teapot” of Sagittarius.
Saturn is below and to the left of Jupiter and Mars. Stands to the east of the “teapot” of Sagittarius almost in Capricomus.
The bright stars of the winter skies still dominate the evening. As mentioned last month, the central figure, Orion the hunter, stands high in the south as the sun sets. Using the belt of Orion as a pointer, we can draw a line to the west to locate Aldebaran, the fierce, red eye of Taurus the bull. Note a v-shaped group of stars that marks the face of the bull. This group is known as the Hyades, a cluster of stars very important to astronomers in determining distances in the universe.
Now, look a little farther to the west in Taurus, on the shoulder of the bull, to locate a pretty little cluster of stars called the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. There appear to be only six bright stars in this cluster but a telescope, or even a pair of binoculars, reveals hundreds of fainter stars. Some people think the Pleiades cluster is shaped like a tiny dipper and mistake it for the Little Dipper. But the Little Dipper is in the North, in the Little Bear. In fact, it is so far North that Polaris, the North Star, marks the end of its handle. As the earth rotates throughout the night, the little dipper swings around it as if the North Star were a nail through the end of the handle fastening the constellation to the celestial sphere. Further south, the Hyades follow the Pleiades across the sky. This has led to one Native American story that holds that the Pleiades are wives who got fed up when their husbands complained about the evening meal. They leaped into the sky and are now being eternally chased by their distraught and very hungry husbands, the Hyades.
March 2, 2:57 p.m. EST – First quarter moon.
March 8, 2:00 a.m. EST – Daylight Saving Time begins. Set clocks ahead 1 hour.
March 9, 1:48 p.m. EDT – Full moon (largest in 2020).
March 12 – The sun moves out of Aquarius the water bearer and into Pisces the fishes.
March 16, 5:34 a.m. EDT – Last quarter moon.
(The Learning Center at PARI is a public not-for-profit 501 (c) (3) organization established in 1998. Located in the Pisgah National Forest. The Learning Center provides STEM educational programs at all levels, from K-12 through post-graduate research. For more information about the Learning Center at PARI and its programs, visit http://www.pari.edu.)