Venus - the evening star
February 26, 2015
Welcome to the first in this series of night-sky columns, in which I'd like to focus on one or two astronomical events each month and provide practical tips on how to see them. I'll also include general news about astronomy and space exploration, so it's not just about the night sky. You can find additional information, resource material and contact details at our website www.spacecentre.nz. I'm happy to take questions and comments.
Recently you may have noticed two very bright "stars" just after sunset about 20 minutes before other stars start coming out. These are actually both planets - Venus near the setting Sun and Jupiter low in the eastern sky. We'll talk more about Jupiter in coming months but for now it's worth focusing on Venus because it happens to appear right next to Mars, providing a great view of our two planetary neighbours. This will only last for the first week of March and the sooner you can see it the better the view.
If you have sharp eyes you can see Venus appear low in the western sky within minutes of the sunset. Start looking as soon as you can because it's sinking fast and will be gone in about 40 minutes. Mars is just below and to the left, but much fainter and harder to see. You'll probably need to wait another 10-15 minutes before it becomes visible.
Although Mars is faint, it's easy to distinguish because it's obviously red. There aren't any bright stars in the vicinity so hopefully you'll be able to see Venus and Mars together with the unaided (naked) eye. However, if you have a reasonably good pair of binoculars you'll get a much better view. I recommend 10x50 binoculars as an excellent astronomical tool that are also good for general day-time use. These have a wide enough field of view to see both Venus and Mars at once.
Good luck, and remember to contact me with any questions.