On the radio, a caller starts asking, “What’s that bright star…” and I interrupt: “Venus!” The full inquiry, if you’re interested, would go like this: “What’s that bright star in the west soon after sunset?”
A New Paltz reporter contacted me last week to ask about the UFO reports people are talking about. No shame: Former president Jimmy Carter was a nuclear engineer, a man of science; yet he reported a UFO to the Georgia State Police that proved to be Venus. It’s 20 times more dazzling than the brightest true star, Sirius – bright enough to cast shadows. Just gorgeous. Yet it will soon vanish.
The next clear night, the first hour or so after nightfall, look in the direction of sunset, meaning west. And there it is: the most luminous “star.” You’ll never be in doubt as to what you’re seeing. It’s our sister planet – our nearest planetary neighbor in space. The goddess of love.
So identifying it is a no-brainer. You get no credit for finding the night’s brightest object. Instead, the challenge is to be a good observer and simply watch what happens to it. This month it’s at its brightest of the year, and it still hovers at a decent altitude above the horizon. It’s not low down – at least not at 6 p.m. It won’t be hidden by trees or hills. Of course, if you catch it later – at 9 or so, just before it sets – then it will be low.
And to its upper left floats a dim orange star: the planet Mars. All very cool. Don’t bother pointing a telescope at Venus or Mars; there’s nothing much to see when you magnify them. This is a naked-eye treat, easy and cheap.
After mid-month, as night falls each evening, Venus will not be quite as high up as it was the night before. During the final half of this month it sinks lower, and completes its disappearing act in March. When winter ends on the Vernal Equinox in March, Venus will be gone. Those of us who love it will find the abrupt darkness dispiriting. Twilight won’t be the same without Venus hovering in the middle of it. I’d call my therapist if I had one.
Bottom line: These are the final weeks to see Venus both dazzling and nicely high up. When will the next Evening Star appear with such favorable conditions? Not until the year 2020.
So take that true love by the hand and show them Venus on Valentine’s Day evening. That’s when it will shine at its very brightest. How perfect is that?