Visions of Venus

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Surface views of Venus from the Magellan mission.

Credit: JPL/NASA


Rounding the corner during a recent pizza run, a brilliant sparkle popped into view and appeared to sail above roof tops in sync with me as I hastened up the block. I wish I could say that I had known in a flash it was the planet Venus, but that wouldn’t be quite true. Despite being one of countless delightful encounters with sparkling light from that glorious but duplicitous world, it actually took several seconds to ensure it wasn’t a helicopter or plane with its landing light headed straight at me.

A few observations were noted. Time: deep twilight about 25 minutes after sunset—check; direction: southwest—check; elevation: about 30o of arc above the horizon—check; no apparent twinkling or progressive variation of brightness—check; constant position in sky (discounting the light’s apparent movement relative to foreground objects)—check. Hesitation about the cynosure’s identity vanished.

The Venusian atmosphere reflects a high percentage of incoming sunlight, sending some our way to present the beautifully vivid visual impression we enjoy. However, dense lower layers of that atmosphere consist mostly of heat trapping carbon dioxide along with some powerful acids. Beautiful as this planet appears from afar, conditions down on its rocky surface are harsh.

Venus is viewed with ease whenever it’s above the horizon and obstructions don’t block our view. But unlike the Sun and Moon, recognition of Venus’ identity, regardless of its stunning brilliance, is often beyond the ken of folks not minimally cognizant of the night sky. The planet’s dazzle is so intense it can cast shadows at sites remote from artificial lights. I remember seeing it in a clear blue daytime sky. Vistas of Venus are sought and seen by many millions during its alternating evening and early morning observing seasons, even from the hearts of great cities.

If you’ve never independently identified Venus, February 2017 is a fine time to acquire this ability, which can provide pleasure for the rest of your life.

Now, an added bonus is Venus’ apparent proximity to the planet Mars; the Hayden's Skylight video from January 27 guides your gaze to Venus and Mars in their present juxtaposition.

Venus will brighten very slightly over the coming days, reaching its night of “greatest illuminated extent” on Friday, February 17, then it will be about 270 times brighter than its red planet neighbor, Mars.

Due to the planet’s stunning brilliance, it’s easy to notice Venus—billions worldwide do so every evening, perhaps calling it “the evening star,” yet most probably don’t know what they are seeing. It’s fun pointing this planet out to others, sharing the pleasure with folks who may be only familiar with solar system planets on screens or paper.

How about this as a valentine gift for someone special—on an excursion, surprise your loved one with a view of the magnificent world named for the goddess of love!

Among built up areas, and certainly amidst New York City’s myriad buildings, southwestern vistas for spotting Venus viewing are elusive unless you happen to be by the Hudson River shoreline, or might have an upper floor vista for example from a Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park. Otherwise, in the city and elsewhere, if you’re at a place with a wide view toward the late afternoon sun it could be a good locale to later see Venus during twilight, check it out.

During the first half of February, about 30 minutes after sunset, Venus appears in the west-southwest direction. An exceptional platform to enjoy and contemplate Venusian sparkle is aboard the Staten Island Ferry. Plan to board between sunset and about 7 p.m. during February, go to the New Jersey side of the boat, and start looking westward as soon as the ferry turns and heads toward its destination. There will be aircraft buzzing by, so consider my Venus checklist and savor the view.

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