The Science Behind Venus in Retrograde

The planet of Venus as captured in visible light. Carl Sagan first posed a question about what could survive in the clouds of Venus, which have more favorable conditions than the surface of the planet. (Photo: NASA)

Astrologists are abuzz over the planet Venus entering several weeks of retrograde motion across the sky, with readings portending sexual tension, financial opportunities, and other vague life transformations. The good news? The movement of Venus — or any other planet — across the night sky will have no bearing on your love life or other personal issues.

"The idea that the gravity from these very distant bodies affects our lives in some way just doesn't work in the framework of physics," Jean-Luc Margot, a planetary astronomer and professor at UCLA, told LiveScience in 2016.

The science of retrograde

When standing on Earth and observing the night sky, all of the planets move on a west-to-east track through the stars. Occasionally, however, a planet will appear to halt in its orbit, an illusion known as a stationary point, and then backtrack or "retrograde" for several weeks or even months. The reason for this occurrence, however, has nothing to do with the universe whispering in your ear and everything to do with the Earth's orbit relative to those of other planets in the solar system.

As the animation below shows, because Venus's orbit only takes 224 Earth days to complete one rotation around the sun, it overtakes the Earth's orbit and appears to move backwards from east to west. Once Earth's orbit catches up, the planet resumes its normal or "direct" easterly drift in the evening sky. Venus in retrograde this year lasts from Oct. 5 to Nov. 14.

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The retrograde planets

When it comes to Venus's rotation, however, retrograde isn't just an illusion. The planet, the second-brightest celestial object in the night sky after the moon, not only has the longest rotation period of any in our solar system (one Earth day equals 243 Earth days on Venus), but it's also one of the few that spins in the clockwise direction (the other being Uranus). On Venus, the sun very slowly rises in the west and sets in the east.

You can see an animation of the tilt, direction, and speed of our solar system's planets below.

While researchers aren't exactly sure why Uranus and Venus have a retrograde spin, the current theories support either collisions from large foreign bodies, gravitational pull from the sun, or even tidal effects from other planets.

Whatever the reason, just know that the occasional retrograde orbits of the planets will have no bearing on your love life, bank account or travel plans. Life, my friend, is what you make of it and not, as Carl Sagan once argued, governed by a "set of traffic signals in the sky."