Elongation (astronomy)

Venus Will Be Bright and a Little Strange Tonight

Look at the sky just after sunset tonight, January 12, and you’re guaranteed to know immediately which point of light is Venus. Hint: It will be the astonishingly bright one. Now get your telescope. As the planet arrives at its greatest angular distance to the east of the Sun, you won’t be able to see surface features, as you sometimes can when looking at Mars, or identify stunning cloud swirls as you might see when viewing Jupiter, because Venus’s thick and unforgiving clouds conceal the planet’s mountains below. But with the help of a telescope, you’ll be able to see that Venus doesn’t appear to be a full circle.

Here’s why: it’s at greatest eastern elongation tonight. What’s that? Elongation is the angle between the planet and the Sun from Earth. To understand elongation, point at the Sun as it sets. With your other hand, point at Venus. Simply put, the angle that your arms make is the elongation. Because planets are ever in motion and orbiting at speeds different from one another, that angle is ever in flux. Repeat this process in March and you’ll notice a big difference in the directions of your arms.

The largest this angle will ever get in an orbit is its greatest elongation. When greatest elongation occurs at sunset, it’s said to be at greatest eastern elongation. That’s what we have tonight. When it occurs at sunrise, it is at greatest western…