Venus and Mars in Western Sky after Sunset

Two very different planets are visible in the evening sky right now. Venus is obvious even in twilight, -a very bright Evening “Star” high above the SW horizon. Then there is Mars, much dimmer and slightly reddish -to the left and slightly up from Venus- looking like an average background star. Both are visible in February and March, Venus catching your eye instantly, its light so intense that most times clouds cannot block it. And now that you know where to look, you should be able to spot the Red Planet as well.

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Image above shows Venus and Mars above the western horizon Feb 18, 2017
Canon 6D 10 s ISO 3200 f/8 24 mm lens


Venus, on Feb 17, was its brightest for this apparition since it had the largest sunlit surface facing us and was on the inside track of its orbit so it was also larger in area due to proximity. The two effects work against each other, -as the planet gets closer and larger, less and less of its surface is light from our perspective. There is a happy medium, however, on Feb 17 when the two produce a maximum lit surface. See SKY SIGHTS entry for Feb 17 for more.

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Image above shows Venus on Feb 18, 2017 at its maximum brightness. (-4.6)
Canon 6D eyepiece projection through 20 mm eyepiece on C-9.25 Edge HD 1/40 s ISO100 f/40 eff. foc.len.

The difference in visual appearance of the two planets is based mostly on distance. Venus in its orbit is approaching the Earth right now and on March 24, it passes between us and the Sun at a mere 41 million kilometres. On rare occasions, it can even shave another 3 million km off that figure. Mars is about 6 times farther than Venus right now and on the opposite side of the solar system from Earth. In a year or so, however, Mars and Earth will be much closer, only 56 million km apart and so Mars will shine as a bright planet in our sky once again. But because Mars is smaller than Earth, (half of Earth’s diameter) and reflects less light our way (16%) it can never get as bright as Venus in our sky. Venus is an Earth-sized planet and its thick atmosphere of clouds reflects 75% of the sunlight in our direction. Mars and our Moon are very poor reflectors with similar albedos (the technical term for reflectivity) of 16% and 12% respectively, about the same as a slate blackboard.

Both planets, Venus and Mars are named after mythological gods. The Roman goddess of love was Venus and in Greek mythology, she was Aphrodite. She is always depicted as demur, lovely and beautifully curvy. The Roman god of war, Mars, and the equivalent Greek war god, Ares are shown in statues and paintings as bold, handsome and certainly manly (and deadly in battle). As the story goes, Mars and Venus at one point were a couple and produced twin offspring which judging by their names were probably poorly behaved: Deimos (meaning terror or dread) and Phobos (panic/fear). These names are used for the two real moons of the planet Mars.

So in the summer of 2018, a much brighter Mars will be the planet to observe with surface features like ice caps and dust storms visible in a telescope. (Even Deimos and Phobos may be glimpsed). But Venus, though closest and brightest in our sky right now, will forever remain mysterious, never dropping her thick veil of clouds and revealing her surface features (unless you have radar eyes, of course). Do enjoy the naked eye or binocular views of Venus right now because by April, Aphrodite’s month, she passes behind the Sun and disappears from our western sky. Later in spring, Venus returns to the east as an equally bright Morning Star, but by then she has left Mars far behind. This is only a temporary separation as the two are back together in a spectacular “embrace” in October -stay tuned.

Penumbral Lunar Eclipse Feb 10

There is an “oh-so-close” lunar eclipse happening on Feb 10. Technically it is a miss, and even if the skies are perfectly clear, the best we can hope for is a slight darkening of part of the Moon’s face at the prime time of 7:44 pm. Even then, you might not notice anything unless you know exactly what to look for. Here’s what you need to know, (in case you’re interested).

Eclipses are caused by shadows. The Sun sends light out in all directions and during a lunar eclipse, the Earth blocks the Sun’s light and the Earth’s shadow falls onto the full Moon. Things have to be lined up perfectly, so eclipses don’t happen every month, -the most we get is seven a year, about half of each type. In 2017, we get two solar and two lunar eclipses, a bit fewer than average.

Lunar eclipses would happen more often except that the Moon’s orbit around Earth is tilted and Earth’s shadow goes over or under the Moon most times. Secondly, there are two parts to the Earth’s shadow that can cover the Moon, an easily-seen dark central area, the umbra, and a surrounding penumbra, but it allows most of the sunlight through and is barely detectable. A penumbral eclipse is what we will get on Feb 10.

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The shadow of Earth extends past the Earth and forms a dark cone stretching out to a point about 1,400,000 km away in space. That’s almost 4 times as far as the Moon is from us, so at the Moon’s distance, the shadow’s cross-section (a circle) is still big, almost 3 times as wide as the full Moon. For that reason, lunar eclipses last several hours and solar eclipses, with a much smaller Moon shadow, -only a few hundred km across- last only a few minutes.

The shadow of Earth on Feb 10 comes close but does not actually contact the umbra (it gets 99% of the way there). The second lunar eclipse this year, on August 7, is a bit better but still only partial and worse yet, for the whole eclipse, the Moon is below our horizon, -the best view will be in the Middle East.

The one bit of good news for Feb 10 is that it may be possible to see a darkening due to the slightly darker, inner part of the penumbral shadow. The outer penumbra is just too faint to see when it touches the face of the Moon at 5:34 pm. By 7:44 pm, however, a darkening on the upper left edge of the Moon (about 10:30 on the clock) may be discernible for perhaps 20 minutes either side of the prime time. The only way to tell for sure is to take a picture at 7:44 pm and compare it to another taken two hours later when the eclipse is over and the Moon is back to full brightness.

If it is clear Friday night, Feb 10, the Fox Observatory at the Outdoor Education Centre near Oliphant will be open to the public and members of the Bluewater Astronomical Society will be there to show you the Moon. You are welcome to take a souvenir photo through the telescope, -even a cell phone will work. If the weather cooperates, there will be time to observe the eclipse, take photos and have a hot chocolate to ward off the chill. Do join us.

Here is an image from the April 4, 2015 lunar eclipse taken before umbral contact to simulate the appearance of the Feb 10 event. Notice the darkening in the upper left of the Moon's disk, -this is about where to expect darkening for the Feb 10 eclipse. This image was taken 10 minutes before umbral contact and the inside edge of the penumbra should be darker than this for Feb 10. Skies will need to be perfectly clear!

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Image by John H. Apr 4, 2015, Canon 60Da, 400 mm telephoto at f/5.6, 1/250 s, ISO 200

PS: The next good total lunar eclipse visible locally happens in two years on Jan 21, 2019 but only a year from now, on Jan 31, 2018, there is a good lunar eclipse visible from the west coast of North America if you are free to travel then. (I hear the skiing is good out there at that time, too). Mark your calendars!

Maps to the Fox Observatory are found on our HOME page.