All eyes are now on planet Venus, our bright morning and evening star.
In the 1950s Venus was one of the most dreamed of and speculated about planets in the solar system. Science fiction portrayed it as a swampy planet covered in rain forests and abundant with strange alien life. Then, after the Soviet Venera missions discovered the hellish conditions on the surface, interest waned somewhat and attention shifted to Mars.
With recent discoveries of Phosphine gas in the planet’s atmosphere, Venus looks set to recapture all of its human wonder and fascination.
Venus has always had the potential to harbour life high in its atmosphere. While its surface is baking hot with crushing pressures, its upper atmosphere is a relatively warm and clement environment.
So far we can’t imagine a natural process which could produce such high concentrations of phosphine gas in the Venus atmosphere but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an explanation that precludes life. Meanwhile we are left to speculate about the many possibilities, including the most tantalising of all, that some form of ancient anaerobic microbial life exists, or has existed, within Venus’s upper atmosphere.
After blazing in the NW after sunset during the depths of lockdown, Venus has now completed its passage in front of the Sun (from our perspective) and now slowly emerging as a morning apparition.
At the moment you’ll need to rise very early to catch it due to very bright skies – binoculars or a telescope might be needed.
The morning of the 19th June is particularly special as both Venus and the wafer thin crescent Moon will sit very close to each other. In fact, later the same morning the Moon will occult (hide) Venus for around an hour.
A rare opportunity to observe a Venus and Mercury conjunction over the next few days.
From tonight (Monday) Mercury will appear progressively closer to Venus in the NW sky after sunset, leading to conjunction on Thursday and Friday night. An excellent chance to see Mercury in binoculars or observe the phase of both planets in a garden telescope.
Mercury is much dimmer and more challenging to see than Venus so my advice is to use Venus as a reference for finding Mercury in your binoculars or telescope. Those, like myself, living in the north of Scotland might need to wait a little longer after sunset to see the planets (due to pervading daylight). This makes it more of a challenge as both planets will be closer to the horizon by then.
Moreover, as both planets will only be around 10 degrees above the horizon at conjunction you’ll need to get away from tall trees or buildings that might obscure your view NW. Hopefully those pesky clouds stay away too.
This is how low Mercury grazes the horizon at the moment. A superb shot of Venus and Mercury from Will Cheung this evening.
If you want to sight Mercury for yourself the best chance is right now in the early evenings just after sunset. Using Venus as a guide, scan the low horizon with binoculars or naked eye. An unobstructed horizon like the one in the picture above is essential.
“Thou lingering star, with less’ning ray,
That lov’st to greet the early morn…”
After last night I’m convinced Rabbie Burns did all his stargazing with a delicious wrap of haggis in hand.
Haggis hand warmers and Clelland’s address from last night’s sellout Dark Sky Burns event. Big thanks to the Abriachan team for the Burn’s supper fare.
Due to inclement skies the astronomy moved indoors I got to talk in some detail about the planet Venus and its harsh environment. A fascinating place that surely deserves more attention in the future, not least for its potential to harbour microbial life in its more clement upper atmosphere.
Why not try looking at Venus through a telescope or a pair of stabalised binoculars? You should be able to make out its phase, just as Galileo did when he first gazed up at it back in 1610.
Have you ever seen the planet Mercury with your own eyes? It’s notoriously difficult to catch being situated so close to the Sun and often hard to pinpoint. You’ll only ever see it as a tiny disc in binoculars, very close to sunrise or sunset.
Over the next couple of days, centred on the Dec 21st solstice, there’s a unique opportunity to see Mercury as it forms a conjunction with bright Jupiter low in the south east in morning skies.
You’ll need a good unobstructed horizon to the SE to catch it. Use Venus as a guide to first find Jupiter, then look through your binoculars and you should see Mercury sitting above.
The window is pretty narrow, from around 7.30pm to 8.30pm. The longer you wait the higher Mercury will rise but the brighter the sky, as the Sun rises.