Night Sky: See Venus at its best

The planet Venus may be the same size as Earth, but its overcast cloud cover made of droplets of sulfuric acid is much more reflective than our own water-droplet clouds. (NASA)

It’s time for easy astronomy; brilliant astronomy; in-your-face, show-the-kids, call-your-friends astronomy. Forget quantum physics. Forget coming on our Northern Lights tour in Alaska. Here is outer space made cheap and easy.

You’ve already noticed Venus. She had been absent for an entire year. But the Evening Star returned around Halloween: It’s that brilliant star in the west after sunset. It’s brighter than anything else. Almost certainly, it has already caught your attention.

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The planet Venus may be the same size as Earth, but its overcast cloud cover made of droplets of sulfuric acid is much more reflective than our own water-droplet clouds. They’re not just intensely shiny; they reflect a more brilliant sunlight to begin with, since at Venus’ location the sunlight is twice as bright. The other big factor in watching that world is its faster speed. Our Earth moves through space at 18.5 miles per second. But Venus moves at 22 miles per second – plus it has a smaller orbit. That means that it can rapidly catch up to us and come quite close.

All this past spring and most of summer, Venus lurked behind the Sun and was hidden by solar glare. By early fall it was no longer exactly behind the Sun, but still on the far side, and on the left side of its orbit. Now it’s coming closer and closer, brightening all the while.

Venus is now unmistakable each evening in the direction of sunset. And each evening, it’s a little higher up and a little brighter. Just for fun, the little orange star far to its upper left is the planet Mars. In the weeks to come, Venus gets higher, brighter and closer to Mars. On New Year’s Day, the crescent Moon floats dramatically close to Venus. The next evening, January 2, the Moon sits right between Venus and Mars.

Then, throughout January, Venus doubles its brightness and climbs even higher up at dusk. At January’s end, Mars and Venus will be closest together, Venus will be bright enough to cast shadows and the Moon will form a spectacular little triangle with those two worlds on January 31. And Venus still keeps brightening, reaching its most dazzling on Valentine’s Day. How appropriate is that, for the Goddess of Love?

So look for it the next clear evening and check it out the next two months. It’s the Evening Star at its best.

 

Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com