Repetition is the only form of permanence that Nature can achieve. In our own beautiful patch of the planet, we see this in the soon-to-return 17-year cicadas, which employ a primary number of breeding years that defy any predator pattern: No number divides into 17.
In the sky, we’re accustomed to the Sun’s repetitious behavior. Some of its patterns are familiar, like the annual shortest day: December 21. Some are less well-known, like the year’s darkest afternoon and earliest sunset, which arrives on December 7.
The Moon obliges, too. It is famously full every four weeks plus one-and-a-half days. Less well-known is its repeating elevation pattern. The December Full Moon (as long as it occurs after the 6th) is reliably the year’s highest. It’ll happen on December 10.
The Mayas’ favorite repetitive sky rhythm involved the planet Venus. That brightest “star” in the heavens had a special place in the hearts of many early civilizations. One reason for its allure was that its cycles could easily be observed by all – even if totally unknown by the vast majority in our busy modern world.
I bring this up because Venus is now entering a truly extraordinary cycle. This will be an in-your-face apparition that will ultimately gain headlines in the mass media. But the time to start observing it is now.
Venus first appears as an Evening Star – low in western twilight and as dim as it ever gets – every 19 months. It then spends the next nine months in the west after sunset, initially growing higher and brighter, and finally lower, until it crashes back into the solar glare and vanishes.
These appearances vary greatly. During a poor apparition like the one that we just had in 2010 and 2011, Venus never gets high. It stays buried in twilight or hidden behind skyline trees and buildings.
But a great apparition is special, and that’s what is beginning now. It is currently emerging, low above the sunset point in evening twilight. You may have spotted it already as the only “star” down there. If you haven’t, you will. Each evening it’s a bit higher up. One evening at perhaps 4:45 or 5 p.m., you’ll suddenly spy it. The parking lots at all the Kingston malls are ideal places for this, as is Poets’ Walk across the Rhinecliff Bridge.
As December continues and gives way to January, Venus will climb dramatically higher and stay up longer before setting. Absolutely everyone will notice it then. Then by mid-March, the Evening Star will stand halfway up the sky at sunset. It will remain out for hours, and appear against a black night sky. It will then also double its brightness. Also in mid-March it floats next to Jupiter, those two dazzling luminaries looking spectacular – like automobile headlights.
In April, Venus brightens to its maximum. It will even cast shadows on white surfaces! In May it plunges lower each evening, heading towards the Sun. On June 5, Venus crosses the Sun’s face, and this will be visible from right here – without even needing a telescope. This kind of eclipse, called a transit, will not happen again until the year 2117.
And still Venus isn’t finished. It then rapidly climbs high into the pre-dawn sky to become the best Morning Star in years. It will dazzle us in July and August and remain visible until the end of the year.
So, though Venus has a cycle of 19 months, and another of eight years and two days, it also displays this far-rarer cycle that occurs only once in the course of 227 years. In this cycle it displays its best Evening Star apparition, then performs a June transit of the Sun, then offers a superb Morning Star apparition – all within the same year. It does this after an absence of 227 years, then repeats the trick just eight years later, before going silent again for a further 227 years.
We had the first of these long-awaited Rare Special Venus years in 2004. The eight-year gap has now passed, and 2012 brings the final presentation until the year 2247. The show starts whenever you spot Venus low in evening twilight, and continues throughout 2012. Are you ready?