Go out and greet Venus with a smile. It's been hidden in the solar glare for months but not anymore. No one's heard hide nor hair of the planet since its March 26 conjunction with the sun. Even I was skeptical of seeing it last night, but a front had moved through and swept the sky clean of haze, making conditions perfect for Venus-seeking.
I watched from a lake with a good view of the west-northwest sky and began looking for the planet 20 minutes after sunset. To my complete surprise I easily found it in binoculars. After lowering the glass, I quickly spotted it with my eyes alone. Wow! I'd forgotten how intensely silver-white Venus glows., the only planet that looks like that.
At the time, Venus stood just 5° high, equal to three fingers held horizontally at arm's length. I kept an eye on it for the next 25 minutes until it dipped to 2° and disappeared behind distant clouds.. Honestly, it was much easier to see than I expected. That's why I think you'll also find it with minimum effort. Just make sure the sky is clear and open to the west.
Mercury, the second "new" evening planet, added extra sparkle to the scene. Although fainter than Venus, it's higher up, making it almost as easy to spot. Venus shines at magnitude -3.9 and Mercury at -0.7. On the magnitude scale, which astronomers use to determine the brightness of a celestial object, a negative number is a good thing. The bigger the negative, the brighter, all the way up to the sun, outrageously radiant at magnitude -27!
Mercury stands about 7.5° above Venus on May 5th. Their distance will slowly increase to about 9° over the coming week, while Mercury fades slightly. Be sure to mark your calendar for May 12 when the extremely thin crescent moon and Venus pair up in a beautiful, close conjunction.
The best time to catch both planets now through mid-May is to first find out when the sun sets for your location using this sunset calculator. You can start watching as soon as 20 minutes after sunset for Venus and a little later for Mercury because it's fainter. Binoculars are helpful because you'll spot Venus easily and then know exactly where to look without optical aid. Free star-charting apps like Sky Chart are also helpful in pinpointing the planet's location. After you install it, simply face west and aim your phone toward the horizon. Both Android and iPhone versions are available at the links.
Stars appear as tiny points of light even in large telescopes, which makes them easy targets for our turbulent atmosphere. When a bright star approaches the horizon we view it through miles and miles of dense air compared to when it's high overhead. Temperature variations in all those different pockets and layers of air bend its light this way and that, causing it to twinkle. Planets rarely twinkle because they show true disks that are too big to get pushed around by the fluttery atmosphere.
Sometimes, however, planets break the rules. Venus sure did last night. When it had dipped to about 3° above the horizon it began to slowly pulse (twinkle). One moment, it surged in brilliance almost like a flaring satellite. The next moment it faded. The effect was obvious in both binoculars and with the naked eye and caught me by surprise.
After further thought, it made sense — Venus is near its most distant point from Earth right now (see diagram above) and looks very tiny. At the same time, it shone through the bottommost layer of air. Combine these two factors, and the planet didn't stand a chance against the atmosphere. Watch for these pulses if you have the opportunity to follow Venus down to the horizon.
Eta Aquariids a dud?
Early this morning I got up and spent an hour and a half with the Eta Aquariid meteor shower. I had expected to see at least 10 meteors an hour, but instead caught just one — a beauty — that streaked a long distance across the southeastern sky. Airplanes and satellites passed. Jupiter and Saturn cleared the trees, but by the time the birds broke into song my meteor count for the morning stubbornly remained at exactly "1". I observed from a fairly dark location with the Milky Way in plain view, so I'm puzzled. What was your experience? To comment, you can go to my Facebook page.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.