A Brief Guide to Observing the Planet Venus

venusThe planet Venus is the third brightest object in our skies after the Sun and the Moon. Known since the first humans turned their gaze to the sky, the striking appearance of Venus compelled the ancient Greeks and Romans to name the planet after the goddess of love and beauty. Other cultures, including the Sumerians and the Pawnee in North America also linked this brilliant planet to objects of feminine beauty.  The ancient Mayans had a particular interest in Venus and built an observatory at Chichen Itza to, among other things, precisely measure the position of the planet, and some aspects of the Mayan calendar are based on the motions of Venus. While Venus reveals little detail in a telescope, it grows and shrinks and goes through a series of phases similar to the Moon, and comes closer to Earth than any other planet. Here’s a little background on the planet Venus and a few tips to help you see the planet for yourself and understand its apparitions and motion in our skies…

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Going Deep in the Snake’s Head

Sketch of Messier 5. Credit: Vedran Vrhovac at Flickr.com

Sketch of Messier 5. Credit: Vedran Vrhovac at Flickr.com. Click to enlarge.

The constellation Serpens Caput, the Snake’s Head, lies well off the band of the Milky Way and holds relatively few deep-sky sights. But it’s not completely barren. Let’s have a look at three targets in this ancient constellation for stargazers equipped with modest optics and an urge to see something good…

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Animated Flyover of Dwarf Planet Ceres

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab has released this simulated but rather stirring flyover of the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest denizen of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Using hundreds of images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, a team at Germany’s national space center (DLR) created a video that gives you a close-up of the most striking features of this little world.

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Mercury, the Moon, and Assorted Stars and Planets Before Dawn

Mercury, a waning crescent Moon, and assorted other stars and bright planets as seen 30 minutes before sunrise in the eastern sky.

Mercury, a waning crescent Moon, and assorted other stars and bright planets as seen 30 minutes before sunrise in the eastern sky.

If you’re up for a weekend challenge, grab your binoculars, find a clear view down to the eastern horizon, and head out about 30 minutes before sunrise to spot fingernail-thin crescent Moon right next to the planet Mercury in the pre-dawn sky. A pair of binoculars will help you pull an image of the pair out of the brightening sky. Westward (above) this pair you will also see the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Venus in the constellation Leo. The event favors observers in the northern hemisphere, but it is also visible in the south, although the sky will be slightly brighter when Mercury emerges above the horizon.

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