Have you seen Venus yet? If not, check it out low in the southwest just after sunset, and before it gets completely dark. It is the brightest object up there besides the moon, so if you do spot it, it will be unmistakable. Look above and to the left of where the sun went down. If you cannot see the planet now, do not give up, it will get higher in the sky this winter, reaching its peak towards the end of March. The other bright object nearby is Jupiter, and farther to the left, maybe you can see the dimmer planet Saturn.
Venus is coming our way from the point in its orbit known as superior conjunction, where it has been hiding behind the sun. Now in its faster orbit around the sun it is catching up with us and becoming more easily visible to us. Jupiter and Saturn will be soon be lost in the sunset glare, but Venus will be our brilliant companion all winter.
From an unlikely mixture of blood and seafoam, the most beautiful goddess of all, the drop-dead gorgeous goddess of love and beauty, emerged fully grown as an adult. Her Greek name was Aphrodite and her name actually means “from the sea foam,” and we get our word aphrodisiac from her. Her Roman name was Venus, and the planets are named for the Roman names for the gods, not the Greek names.
The reason that the planet Venus is so dazzlingly bright is because it is completely enshrouded in thick clouds that reflect sunlight at us. Early astronomers sometimes imagined they saw Himalayan-sized peaks poking up above those clouds. Science fiction writers of the time went wild. They imagined a steamy, jungle world with exotic creatures roaming the surface and primitive inhabitants swinging from vines on trees.
Now we know that Venus is a very inhospitable place. It is hot there, about 900 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead. Those clouds are not like our friendly clouds made of water vapor, but rather concentrated battery acid. In fact it rains battery acid up in those clouds. It evaporates in the heat before it actually reaches the surface of Venus. The clouds are so heavy that standing on the surface would be like standing on the floor of one of our oceans with three thousand feet of water above you. Their weight is heavy enough to flatten a car. If the planet earth were to be moved to the orbit of Venus, our temperature would rise by about 50 degrees, which would be way too hot for us. But why is Venus so much hotter? It is suffering from a runaway greenhouse effect from which it will never recover.
If you have a small telescope, take a peek at Venus. Right now it will appear to be a small little ball, not too remarkable or interesting. But as time goes on this winter, it will become larger in size but its phase will shift from a “full” Venus to a half-lit planet. Because Venus orbits the sun between the earth and the sun, it goes through phases just like our moon. Later in the spring, as the planet gets even closer to us, Venus will appear even larger and as a slim crescent.
Look over into the east in the early evening to see the constellation Orion, the Hunter, rising into view. These are the first bright stars of winter to make an appearance in our sky, and if you stay up later, there are many more to come. Be sure to get outside on a crystal clear winter night to take it all in.