Vesper Shines in the Evening Sky

5256732620_130024e956_bAny clear night through early March, look to the western sky shortly after it gets dark. You can’t miss that extremely bright “star.” Some have mistaken it for the landing lights of an incoming plane, and in the past it has even been reported as a UFO. It is very bright, and for folks who do not ordinarily look at the sky, it may seem unnatural. But it is very natural.

To the ancient Romans, this brilliant star-like object was “Vesper” when it shone in the evening sky as it does now. When seen in the morning sky, it was called “Lucifer,” the bearer of light.* To us, it is the planet Venus.

Venus is the third brightest astronomical object in the sky, after the Sun and Moon. It outshines all other planets and stars. Under the right conditions, it can even cast a shades. In fact, it is so bright that experienced observers can actually see it in broad daylight.

You really can’t miss Venus if you look in the right direction (West) and the right time (around an hour after sunset). Look soon, though, because its orbit causes it to oscillate from one side of the Sun to the other. Right now it is on the eastern side, meaning that it trails the Sun and remains for a short while after sunset in the western sky. But by late March it will be too close to the Sun to be seen, set to emerge in the predawn eastern sky in early April.

Venus is the closest planet to Earth, beating out Mars by about 10 million miles when each are at their closest points (about 25 million miles for Venus and 35 million miles for Mars). But the actual distance changes all the time. For example, on February 15, 2017, Venus is about 40.5 million miles from Earth. Mars, which currently appears nearby in the sky, is at about 181 million miles away at the same time!

Even when they are at nearly the same distance, Venus outshines Mars because it is covered by bright white clouds. And always being closer to the Sun, the reflected light is brighter.

[The image used here is by Tavis Jacobs and used under Creative Commons licensing. It shows a predawn view of Venus above Haleakala in Hawaii, on November 23, 2010. Although at a different location and time, it represents well its appearance in the western sky after sunset right now. The main difference is that you will not see the bright star above and to the right of Venus. That is Spica, one of the brightest stars in our sky. Right now, the planet Mars is nearby (slightly above and to the left of Venus), but much fainter and somewhat difficult to see unless the conditions are right.]

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About Starman

Cosmic Awareness Facilitator. Astronomy, space, physics, science, planets, cosmology, reason, logic, clouds, sky phenomena, the environment, dogs and other animals, and other interesting stuff.
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