Image: Sky map
Starry Night Software
This sky map shows the location of Venus and Jupiter near each other in the predawn eastern sky at 5 a.m. local time on Wednesday, as viewed from midnorthern latitudes.
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updated 9/11/2012 9:29:59 PM ET 2012-09-12T01:29:59

The predawn morning sky on Wednesday contains a beautiful celestial sight that will likely attract a lot of attention for many early risers.

If you venture outside several hours before sunrise, low above the east-northeast horizon you'll see a slender sliver of a waning crescent moon, weather permitting. And located to its left will be a dazzling, silvery-white "star" shining with a steady glow.

That will be the planet Venus, shining at an eye-popping magnitude of -4.2 (13 times brighter than Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky) from a distance of 85.6 million miles (137.7 million kilometers) from Earth.

Venus dominates the heavens from the time it comes up over the horizon a little north of due east around 3 a.m. local time — nearly four hours before the sun and some two hours before the first light of dawn.  Its brightness puts the night sky's other lights — even its closest rival, Jupiter, which will be riding about halfway up in the eastern sky — to shame. [September 2012 Night Sky Guide (Sky Maps)]

So it is that on Wednesday morning, the moon and Venus, the two brightest objects of the nighttime sky, will be separated by about 4 degrees. Your clenched fist held at arm's length measures roughly 10 degrees, so on Wednesday, moon and planet will be about a "half fist" apart.

What will make this attractive scene even more attractive will be "Earthshine," where the unilluminated portion of the moon will seem to glow dimly with an eerie blue-gray light. First described by Leonardo da Vinci in his Codex Leicester, circa 1510, this mysterious glow is caused by sunlight reflected off the oceans and cloud tops of Earth, directed toward the moon. 

The moon will be only 16 percent illuminated by the sun. The contrast between the narrow, yellow-white sliver and the blue-gray shade filling the rest of the lunar disk should give it a striking three-dimensional appearance, especially in binoculars.

As the morning progresses, the moon and Venus will climb well up into the eastern sky.

In spite of the fact that Venus was at greatest elongation (maximum angular separation) from the sun on Aug. 17, this dazzling planet appears even higher in the sky during this month. In fact, Venus is now at the peak of its highest morning apparition (for skywatchers at midnorthern latitudes) — about 40-degrees ("four fists") high at each September sunrise.

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As a bonus, Venus will also slide 2.5 to 3 degrees south of the center of the famous Beehive star cluster in Cancer (M44), from Wednesday through Friday morning, making for a very pretty sight in binoculars. Sunrise or late in morning twilight is the best time to study Venus in small telescopes.  Telescopically, however, Venus is now just a tiny, featureless and increasingly gibbous disk.

By month's end Venus will have descended to within 5 degrees of Regulus, which it will pass exceedingly close to on Oct. 3.

If you have a photo of the moon, Venus and the Beehive cluster, or any other amazing night sky photo that you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, please contact managing editor Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

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  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

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  12. Frosty halo

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    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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