Have you seen the brilliant object shining in the east before sunrise now? It’s the beautiful morning “star,” really the planet Venus, brightest planet ever seen in Earth’s sky. Venus is the second planet outward from our sun. It’s always the third-brightest object in Earth’s sky, after the sun and moon. Right now, though – around mid-February 2014 – Venus is at its brightest. It is at what astronomers call its greatest illuminated extent or greatest brilliancy, which peaks on February 15, but which is noticeable for many weeks around mid-February 2014. Follow the links below to learn more about Venus at its brightest.
When can I see Venus? You can’t miss Venus if you look outside before the sun comes up. Look in the same direction as the sunrise. Venus will be shining there – looming there, actually – a bright and somewhat eerie-looking object.
Venus always looks a bit eerie around its time of greatest brilliancy. At these times, many people report Venus as a UFO. Plus, there are multiple stories in military history about people mistaking Venus for an enemy spy balloon, and trying to shoot it down.
You’ll know better. It’s just Venus at its brightest!
Venus has been in the morning sky since January 11, 2014, but its time of greatest brilliancy means its reign in the morning sky has barely begun. Why? Because greatest brilliancy for Venus in the morning sky always comes shortly (about 36 days) after the planet passes (more or less) between us and the sun. But Venus presence in the morning sky lasts for about 292 days, so this bright beauty will remain a fixture of the morning sky until October 25, 2014
This planet ranges in magnitude from -3.9 to -4.9. A negative magnitude means an exceptionally bright celestial object. Our sun, for example, has a magnitude of -26!
Or contrast the brightness of Venus to the very brightest stars. Consider the well-known star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion, which shines at a magnitude of 0.45. At its faintest, Venus shines nearly 40 times brighter than Betelgeuse. At its brightest, Venus is about 100 times brighter.
Or consider the sky’s brightest star, Sirius, whose magnitude is -1.44. At its faintest, Venus is nearly 10 times brighter than Sirius. At its brightest, Venus beam nearly 25 times brighter.
Venus is bright partly because it’s nearby, and partly because its surface is covered with highly reflective clouds.
That’s why this dazzling world displays the full range of phases, much like our moon. You need a telescope to observe the phases of Venus, and they are most fun to watch around the time that Venus passes between us and the sun. Around then, the lighted half or day side of Venus is facing mostly away from us. Venus appears in a crescent phase.
Believe it or not, Venus doesn’t exhibit its greatest brilliancy at the full phase. In order to see Venus as full, that planet must be far across the solar system from us, and, at such times, the size of its disk is small. So Venus appears fainter then.
Likewise, Venus doesn’t shine at greatest brilliancy when it’s closest to Earth. Then the planet is either an extremely thin crescent as seen from Earth, or it’s not visible at all because its day side faces entirely away from us and it’s in the sun’s glare.
Here’s the secret to Venus at its brightest: Venus reaches its greatest illuminated extent when the planet’s illuminated portion or day side covers the greatest square area of sky.
That happens when Venus’ disk is about one-quarter (25%) illuminated by sunlight, as shown in the image at right.
Venus always displays its greatest illuminated extent about 36 days before and after passing between the Earth and sun (inferior conjunction, new phase). Venus last exhibited its greatest illuminated extent as the “evening star” on December 6, 2013. It passed between the Earth and sun at inferior conjunction on January 11, 2014. It will show off its greatest illuminated extent (as the “morning star”) on February 15, 2014.
Another way of looking at it, Venus reaches its greatest illuminated extent midway between a greatest elongation and inferior conjunction, or vice versa. Venus’ greatest evening (eastern) elongation last happened on November 1, 2013, and its greatest morning (western) elongation will occur on March 22, 2014.
So watch for Venus. It’s bright and beautiful around now. People from across the globe will be gazing in wonder at it, asking what it is, and you can tell them!
Phase of planet Venus
Bird’s-eye view of Earth’s and Venus’ orbits
Bottom line: What’s that very bright star or planet in the east before sunrise around mid-February 2014? It’s the planet Venus, now near its time of greatest brilliancy.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.