Thursday, May 13, 2004

Time to see a crescent Venus

If you own or can borrow a pair of binoculars (10x magnification or better), get out after sunset and take a look at Venus, the very bright star in the western sky. I’ve watched it off and on for months, and now is the first time I can see it’s a crescent, just like the moon is a crescent at this point in its phase. Kind of a neat thing to observe, a visual confirmation that the phase of the moon is not some unexplainable, unique thing, but part of a larger pattern of the universe in motion.

While you’ve got the binoculars out, take a look at the obvious, second-brightest star in the sky after Venus, not as low in the west as Venus, but looking higher and more to the south. This star is the planet Jupiter, and with 10x binoculars, you should see between two and four of its moons lined up on either side of the planet. That’s what Galileo saw 400 years ago, and what set human perception of our world in motion.

To see what Venus would look like from a very large telescope, click here. I got the image from the NASA Solar System Simulator website, which has a lot of great stuff to use.

UPDATE: Some more night sky: look just up and to the left of Venus, and you will see a faint, reddish star. That's Mars, much fainter than it was last summer because it's far away from earth now. Look further up and to the left from Mars and you'll see a brighter blue-white star, which is Saturn. Ten power binocs may be enough to make out Saturn's moon Titan. With my 12-power binocs, Saturn looks a little elongated, which I'm pretty sure is the beginning of a distinction between the planet and its rings.

Directly above Saturn are two bright stars, close together. Those stars are the twins in the Gemini constellation, part of the zodiac.

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