The night’s brightest object is the Moon, of course. But the second-brightest? Surprisingly, most people don’t know.
That’s why a dazzling apparition can now dominate the western sky, shining a hundred times more brightly than the brightest stars, and yet travel incognito. It’s Venus, the Evening Star, and she’s in her glory from now through August.
She will be higher-up and brighter as spring unfolds. But right now, Venus is worth our attention because it’s in such a strange place. Yes, it’s that superbright “star” in the west the first few hours after sunset. But it’s actually to the right of due west – closer to northwest: an unusual place for a planet to be.
That’s because the Evening Star is spending May (and most of June, for that matter) in the most northerly part of the zodiac, in Taurus and Gemini. Moreover, instead of sitting smack in the middle of the zodiac, it’s following the zodiac’s northern edge, which happens because Venus’ orbit is tilted 3.4 degrees from the exact flat pancakelike Earth/Sun plane.
It may be the sky’s very brightest “star,” but it’s actually at its personal worst right now. You’ll see it slowly brighten as 2018 grinds on. By September, it will have twice the brilliance it has now. When the Evening Star reaches its maximum brightness, well, that’s when Venus lights up the west like a searchlight, the first hours after nightfall.
This makes people around the world go on a binge of misidentification. Venus alone accounts for more than half of all UFO reports. And they don’t all come from dimwits. My two favorite Venus stories: Jimmy Carter, while governor of Georgia, phoned the state police to report a UFO that proved to be Venus. And a squadron of Allied bombers returning from a mission over Japan in World War II saw a brilliant light that appeared to keep pace with them. Firing their guns, they attempted, without success, to blow up the Evening Star. At our Overlook Observatory phone and during Public Radio call-in shows, when someone begins a sentence with “I’ve been seeing a star…” I obnoxiously interrupt them with “Venus!”
Its creamy-white brilliance, from sunlight bouncing off shiny clouds of sulfuric acid, is oddly steady. It rarely twinkles. And it’s dazzling enough to cast shadows when seen from a dark place. Wait for the first half of September for this, when there will be no Moon to compete.
Venus is the most unpleasant planet in the known universe. Its surface temperature never varies from 850 degrees: hotter than a woodstove. The air is 100 percent carbon dioxide, trapping in the Sun’s heat like a blanket. That’s why Venus manages to have a hotter surface than even Mercury. This was the original “greenhouse effect” model, long before that phrase’s current popularity. And its air pressure remains stuck at 90 Earth-pressures, making it the most efficient pressure-cooker in this neck of the galaxy. A few seconds would do it for beef stew.
Sometimes called our “sister planet,” since its diameter and density are nearly the same as ours, all family resemblance ends right there. Goddess of Love, sure. As the night’s brightest “star,” it’s appropriate that it be forever associated with love. But this is strictly a “look but don’t touch” affair.