Driftless Dark Skies: Evenings with Venus

March 1st, 2018 by John Heasley


Venus will be bright and beautiful after sunset in the western skies of the River Valley this spring and summer. Venus outshines all the other planets and stars. On March 1, Venus is fairly low to the horizon and sets around 6:50 about an hour after the Sun. If you have binoculars, look for Mercury below and to the right of Venus. You should be able to see both in the same eyepiece this evening and for the next three weeks. Wait until the Sun sets so you don’t injure your eyes! By March 3, Venus and Mercury will be side by side. Venus shines one hundred times brighter than Mercury, but Mercury is still brighter than any star in the sky. The innermost planet can be challenging to see because it never strays too far from the Sun, but with sharp eyes and a clear cloudless horizon you could see elusive Mercury without binoculars. It will appear at its furthest on March 15 before it begins moving closer to the Sun.

There is an awesome pairing of Venus and the Waxing Crescent Moon on March 18. By now Venus is setting 80 minutes after the Sun. Look for a very thin sliver Moon below and to the left of Venus in the west. Mercury is now above and to the right of Venus. You can be wowed by other pairings of Venus and Crescent Moon on April 17, May 17, June 15 and 16, July 15, August 13 and 14, and September 12. Don’t miss seeing Earthshine on the Crescent Moon when the dark side of the Moon is illuminated by sunlight reflected from Earth. As you continue to watch Venus all spring, you’ll notice that it appears higher in the sky after sunset and sets later than the Sun. As we move into summer, Venus starts getting lower to the horizon and setting closer to sunset. By late fall, Venus will be visible in the eastern sky before sunrise.

The second planet of our Solar System alternates between being “Evening Star” for seven months and then “Morning Star” for seven month with a few months in between when it is too close to the Sun to see. There is a cool resonance between Earth and Venus with an eight-year cycle that was well-known to ancient stargazers. Venus makes thirteen trips around the Sun for every eight that Earth makes. From Earth’s perspective, Venus appears to pass between us and the Sun five times and then behind the Sun five more times. This appearance of Venus is the same as the one we saw in March 2010 and the one we will see in March 2026. Discover for yourself the rhythms of Venus that were so familiar to our ancestors.

On Saturday March 31st 7-9pm, you can enjoy Spring Trails by Light of the Moon at Kickapoo Valley Reserve. We will gather at sunset at the Visitor Center and hike down to the Old 131 Trail. KVR astronomy educators will have a telescope and binoculars for you to enjoy the craters, mountains, maria, and highlands of the Full Moon. We will also take a look at star clusters and constellations as we enjoy the sight, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world. This will involve some moderate hiking in the twilight on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces. Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center. Event is free but please register by calling 608-625-2960 so that we can send you updates.

You can also join Starsplitters of Wyalusing for their meeting and stargazing on Thursday, March 15 starting at 6:30.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

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