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Stargazing: Venus, the evening star

January 11, 2012 at 12:03 PM

Gatehouse News Service

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight ... .

Thus begins the age-old rhyme, as we ponder the heavens above when the sun finally sets and anticipation builds.

Before you see any star, what you very well may see is a planet, other than the one under your feet.

Currently, the wonderfully brilliant planet Venus sparkles in evening twilight, a dazzling sight in any telescope but fine enough with just eyes to see and a heart to appreciate.

Venus is shining at magnitude -4.0, bright enough for you to actually see it in the daytime with unaided eyes if you knew exactly where to look and the sky is very clear. By mid-twilight, the planet is at nearly full glory. Venus appears so bright because it so close to the sun, it is relatively near to us, and its surface is continually shrouded with highly reflective white clouds.

Indeed, stargazing from Venus would be impossible. We think we have it so bad. Not only is it always cloudy, atmospheric pressure at the surface is 92 times that of Earth. The air content is mainly carbon dioxide with a small amount of nitrogen; the clouds are made not of water but of sulfur dioxide.

The incredible greenhouse effect scorches the surface with a maximum temperature of +860 degrees Fahrenheit.

In other words, imagined descriptions of hell are comparable.

We are glad from our lovely Earth, we can overlook this harsh reality of Venus up close. Seen from afar, Venus is a celebrated guiding light, revered as the “evening star” or when it appears in the eastern sky before dawn, the “morning star.”

It has startled us at times. Venus repeatedly surfaces as an imagined “UFO.”

There is a story that in World War II, the U.S. warship Houston fired 250 rounds towards Venus thinking it was an enemy aircraft.

Of similar size as Earth (Venus is 7,521 miles wide; Earth is 7,926 miles), at one time speculation abounded that the surface underneath the clouds cover teemed with an exotic, tropical rain forest. Science fiction stories abounded in the mid-20th century of Venusians.

Watch Venus in coming weeks as it makes its loop and brightens further, as the planet gets closer. In a small telescope, you can watch as it changes phases, much like the moon. Farther up to the left in the evening sky is the bright planet Jupiter (magnitide -2.6). In February, Jupiter will be seen to slide close past Venus as they proceed in their orbits and the Earth continues to move as well around the sun.

The brightest star in the night sky, by the way, is Sirius, magnitude -1.46. You can see it in the southeast to the lower left of Orion on winter evenings.

The full English nursery rhyme goes:

Star light, star bright

First star I see tonight

I wish I may, I wish I might

Have this wish I wish tonight!

This rhyme dates to at least to the late 19th century, but likely wishes have been on stars made since ancient times. While we don’t wish to comment on the reliability of this notion, we may as well ponder, does it count if the first one you wished on tuns out to be a planet?

Send your notes to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Keep looking up!

 

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