Venus is the brightest “star” in the cosmos. It dominates the night sky. Nothing else even comes close. No wonder civilizations through the ages worshiped it. The Maya even created calendars around its brilliance cycles. And yet, most modern people are unaware that the dazzling lowish “star” seen each evening after sunset is the very nearest planet.
Venus is not always there. Sometimes it’s behind the sun. Sometimes it’s very low, masked by twilight’s glare or hidden behind hills and trees. Then for nine months at a time it’s only visible in the pre-dawn, a gift seen from eastern windows by sleepy early risers and insomniacs.
When it does appear in the evening sky, the nine month apparition’s visibility depends on the slant of its orbit with the horizon and how far from the blinding Sun it currently happens to be. Some years, its maximum 46° solar separation is virtually horizontal so that after sunset Venus’ exodus from the solar glare is not upward but merely leftward, which keeps it low and makes it set almost immediately. But if it reaches its greatest elongation in early spring, the plane of its orbit angles almost straight up from the sunset point. That’s what’s now happening.
This Friday night, March 24, Venus dangles beneath the crescent Moon in an attention- grabbing morsel of eye candy. Figure around 7:30 p.m., give or take a half hour, is the best time to look lowish toward where the Sun set. But the Evening Star — its other name — is actually slowly getting higher and brighter each evening as twilight fades. Think it’s amazing now? It’ll be twice as bright and twice as high up in three months.
So 2023 provides rare perfect conditions for the Evening Star. But no need to wait for June and early July. See it the next clear evening. And if mere loveliness or celestial romance leaves you wanting more, you can currently point binoculars just to its left and see the nearest little star — the only one with an odd greenish tint. This is Uranus. (Say YUR-in-us, not your-AYN-us). The seventh planet is normally as challenging to find as to pronounce, but not when there’s such an easy guide-star as we have now and all this weekend.
On the scientific or intellectual level, you might, when gazing at that super-dazzle of the Evening Star, enjoy filling in some of its odd properties, qualities those ancient cultures would never have suspected in their wildest, too-much-pizza-before-bedtime fantasies.
• Venus is almost the same size as Earth, but instead of spinning once every 24 hours as we do, it takes 244 days to make a single rotation. That means its equator moves at only 10 mph. So if you took your bicycle on a path that encircles its equator, you’d only have to go 10 mph to keep the Sun from ever setting.
• But that probably wouldn’t be your main thought as you peddled. Your chief concern would likely be that the air is glued at a steady 850° F day and night, which is hotter than a wood stove. And the air pressure is 90 times greater than Earth’s, so that you’d be peddling in the most deadly pressure cooker in the known universe.
• It’s so bright because it’s covered with a shiny overcast cloud layer. But these clouds are made of droplets of concentrated sulfuric acid. Another reason to hate the place.
• Bottom line: No place has a greater disparity between good looks and hellish physical actuality. It’s named for the goddess of love. But this affair is strictly platonic. In the whole universe, Venus may be the epitome of look-but-don’t-touch! Any wonder no country has the slightest inclination to send astronauts?
But do indeed look!