Venus has been shining like a beacon in the western sky at twilight for the past few months. But April will offer exceptional views of the dazzling Evening Star, which currently draws our gaze from sunset to 11 p.m.
Venus is the second planet from the Sun and the one that comes closest to Earth. Its atmosphere is 90 times denser than Earth’s, and its sulphuric acid clouds reflect sunlight extremely well. This closeness and reflectivity are what make Venus the third-brightest object in the sky, after the Sun and the Moon.
The month begins on a high note with a rare event that occurs only once every eight years. From April 2 to 4, Venus will appear to glide through the Pleiades (M45), an open cluster of “young” stars (about 100 million years old) located in the constellation Taurus. This is only an illusion, of course, since the cluster lies well beyond the limits of the Solar System, about 444 light-years away from Venus. The Pleiades contains some 3,000 stars, of which about a dozen can be seen with the naked eye. This jewel of the winter sky is still visible during the early nighttime hours throughout April. On the evening of April 3, Venus will appear to rendezvous with the star cluster, offering a wonderful opportunity to observe the entire expanse through telescopes and binoculars.
For Venus, the month will end on the same high note as it started: The planet will reach its greatest illuminated extent in late April, the time of year during which it shines at its brightest (magnitude –4.7). If the weather calls for clear blue skies and you know where to look, you may be able to spot it in broad daylight, while the Sun is still up!
If you take the time to observe Venus through a telescope this month, you’ll notice that only a crescent of the planet is actually visible. Don’t worry, your eyes and equipment are not playing tricks on you! Venus has phases just like the Moon and Mercury. The phases occur because of the planet’s location between us and the Sun. Depending on Venus’s orbital position relative to Earth and the Sun, we essentially see only the illuminated portion of the planet. As the April evenings progress, the crescent Venus becomes progressively thinner and grows ever larger the closer it gets to us.
A morning trio
While neighbouring Venus is at its best this month, the other planets don’t disappoint. But you’ll need to rise early (or stay up very late!) to see them since Jupiter, Saturn and Mars are only visible at the end of the night, just before daybreak. At the start of the month, you won’t catch Jupiter, the first planet of this morning trio, emerging above the southeastern horizon until 4 a.m. As the month unfolds, the planet travels through the constellation Sagittarius, bringing it closer to Saturn. By late April, the two gas giants will light up the sky as of 2 a.m., hanging a mere 5 degrees apart and easily visible in the same binocular field of view. Mars continues its journey through Capricorn and cozies up to Saturn and Jupiter on April 1, after which the Red Planet dashes eastward, further and further away from the two giants; by month’s end, it will appear above the east-southeastern horizon only after 3 a.m.
The Moon will glide south of the morning trio of planets from April 14 to 16. The best time to check out this encounter will be at around 5 a.m. on the 15th, when the last quarter will hang 3 degrees below Saturn, above the southeastern horizon.