Tag Archive: Venus


I went to an Alaska Writers Guild meeting Tuesday night, and mentioned Friday’s post on the effect of orbital tilt. This led to a discussion of day length, and I realized that while I knew some planets had really weird day lengths, I wasn’t sure which ones. (I thought it was the inner planets, which turned out to be right.) So as long as I was looking the information up, I thought I’d share it.

Mercury

Mercury (Wikimedia)
Mercury turns out to be the planet whose days are longer than its years. For many years the planet was thought to keep the same side facing the sun all the time: one rotation about its axis relative to the stars for each revolution around the sun. We now know it rotates three times for each two revolutions around the sun, making its days a year and a half long. Luckily it’s a short year (88 Earth days.) Its tilt, by the way, is so near zero it is hard to measure. (Its closeness to the sun doesn’t help.)

Venus

Venus, Hubble photo
Venus is the really weird one. Its rotation is in the opposite direction from its revolution around the sun, so from the surface of Venus, the sun would appear to rise in the west! At perihelion the sun may actually appear to stand still or go backward in the sky. That is, it would if you could see the sun through the sulfuric acid clouds. A Venusian day is long, however: 116.75 Earth days. A Venusian year is 1.92 Venusian days or 224.65 Earth days long. The tilt of its axis is only about 3.4°.

Mars

Mars (Hubble)Mars is easily the least different from Earth when it comes to day length: 24 hours 39 minutes and slightly more than 35 seconds. This is more precise than is generally stated for the other planets, quite simply because Mars is the planet with human-piloted rovers on its surface, and to have daylight, these pilots must work on Martian days (or sols) even though they are located on Earth. (Pilot may not be quite the right word, given that radio communications take 4 to 20 minutes to get to Mars.) Its axial tilt is also similar to Earth’s: 25.2°. A Mars year is 1.8809 Earth years.

Jupiter

Jupiter (Hubble)Jupiter has the fastest rotation rate, and thus the shortest day, of any of the planets: slightly less than 10 hours. Why the vagueness? All we can see of Jupiter is the cloud tops, and those rotate at slightly different speeds at different latitudes. It is clear, however that Jupiter’s days are very short, especially compared with its year length of 11.86 Earth years. Its axial tilt is small, only 3.13°.

Saturn

Saturn (Hubble)Saturn, like Jupiter, rotates fast and the rotation seems to vary with latitude but is slightly more than 10 hours. The year, however, is over twice the length of Jupiter’s – 29.46 years. The axial tilt is relatively large: 26.73°, which is why the visibility of Saturn’s rings from Earth varies so much. Seasonality is probably weakened by internal heating and the large distance from the sun.

Uranus

Uranus (Hubble)Uranus rotates slower than the gas giants but still faster than earth, with a day length of 17 hours, 14 minutes. Its year is 84 Earth years long. It is a few years past an equinox (2007) and won’t reach another solstice until 2028. There is some question as to which is the north pole, since its axis is either tilted at 97.77° with normal rotation or 82.14° with retrograde rotation.

Neptune

Neptune (Hubble)Neptune has a day length of roughly 16.11 hours. Very roughly – Neptune has even more variation in rotation rate of the cloud tops with latitude than does Jupiter, with apparent rotation periods varying from 12 hours at the poles to 18 hours at the equator. Its tilt is a little larger than earth’s, about 28.32°, which should give it pronounced seasons, though not as pronounced as those of Uranus! It year is roughly 164.8 years.

All of this variation is just in our own solar system. What else may be out there?

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The Transit of Venus

Telescopes at Transit

The reflector I used to see Venus was the large tube at the far right. The tan circle with the orange tube just to its left is the one that produced the shadow image shown below.

Tuesday was the last opportunity I’ll ever have to see the transit of Venus with my own eyes, and Alaska is one of the places where it was (theoretically) visible from beginning to end. Local astronomers with properly shielded telescopes were set up by the Noel Wein Library in Fairbanks, so since the sun was actually shining around 2, I took off to see the fun.

I said theoretically because while the sun was up for the duration of the transit, and the transit was visible (unlike a solar eclipse) from anywhere that the sun was visible, it’s been cloudy most afternoons. I set out with more hope than expectation, as towering clouds were visible in all directions. (It had hailed the day before.)

Crowd for the transit

Sunlight came and went.

I’m not going to repeat in detail the reason why transits of Venus are rare—the Wikipedia article I’ve linked to does a good job of that. Basically, the orbit of Venus is inclined to the orbit of Earth by 3.4°, which means that Venus appears actually to cross the sun only when both planets are very near the line of nodes, the line defined by the crossing of the two orbits, at the time Venus comes closest to Earth. Last Tuesday was the last time this century that this will occur.

Sun's image, Venus at lower right.

Shadow image of the sum. Venus is the small dot at the lower right. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

By the time I made it to the library, the lawn sprinkled with telescopes was sunlit – most of the time. Clouds were scudding back and forth over the sun, and a thunderhead was towering to the east and headed our way. (Yes, thunderstorms often move from east to west up here.) I got a look at the sun through a properly filtered reflector during a break in the clouds, and later managed a photograph of a setup where a small telescope was focused on a mirror that produced an image on a white card. Literally minutes later the sun was covered with dark clouds.

Clouds just after they hid the sun

This was taken minutes after the shadow image. Note there are no shadows–the viewing was over for the moment.

I’m glad I had a chance to see this. I’m not a big observer of astronomical events, but I got to watch the total solar eclipse in 1963, any number of lunar eclipses, the partial eclipse last month (via a pinhole camera) and now the Venus transit of 2012. Wish I could find my solar eclipse photo – it was spectacular.