Hey, hey, Sky Fans. Welcome back! Over the last couple of weeks, you might have noticed a bright light in the skies after sunset. I don’t mean the Moon, though that’s bright, too. If you look to the west a half hour so after sunset, there’ll be a very bright point of light that, at a quick glance, looks like an airplane. Freshly out of the Sun’s glare, it’s a bird; it’s a plane; it’s the planet Venus!
I remember many years ago, reading through some astronomy books, and always getting really happy to get to the Venus chapter. I’ve always had a thing for Venus, well, not really a thing, but it’s one of my favorite planets. It’s nearby, the closest thing to us after the Moon, sometimes only about 26 million miles (42 million km) away (closer than dumb, ol’ Mars). Its thick clouds block out everything happening on the ground. And it’s bright! It’s the third brightest thing in the skies! It’s so bright people have sometimes asked me if it’s something we should be worried about– aliens and government conspiracies and stuff. It’s not, unless you plan to land there. The clouds are so thick, so heavy, and so sulfur-filled and poisonous that you’d get crushed by them, suffocate, and then, just to hammer the point home, you’d melt before you knew what happened.
If you love Venus, too, and want to have a look, the next couple of days are a good time to do it. This week, it’ll be teaming up with the giant planet Saturn for the next few days. Here’s what you do. After sunset tonight, October 26, and tomorrow night, October 27, 2016, head outside about a half hour after sunset and look for a bright dot waving at you through the sunsets oranges and reds. Venus orbits closer to the Sun than the Earth does, it’s as the star… talking… people like to say, an inferior planet; it’s closer to the Sun than the Earth is. So from where we sit, it’s always close to the Sun in the sky. This means it often gets lost in the glare, and it sets quickly after the Sun does.
Venus is unmistakably bright, so if the clouds stay away in your sky, you should have no problem picking it out. As the Sun sets, you’ll see it forming a roughly vertical line between Saturn, which is above it, and the giant star Antares below. Venus will be a bit to the right of the line made by Saturn and Antares tonight, then in line tomorrow, and a bit to the left by the weekend. This line will be pretty low in the sky, and the dusk will still be a bit bright, so you might have to work to see Saturn and Antares. This line will be really snug, too, only about 5 degrees will separate Saturn and Venus. That’s only about the width of two fingers held out at arm’s length.
Remember, though, this is all a big optical illusion; a big con. They just look to be close in our skies. In real life, Venus is about 110 million miles (180 million km), Saturn is about a billion miles (1.6 billion km), and Antares 550 light years (3,300,000,000,000,000 miles — 3.3 quintillion miles! — crushingly far, at six trillion miles to the light year. I hope my math is right.) As with so many things in life, perspective is everything.
Saturn’s been spending its time in Scorpius for most of this year, and you might remember just a couple of months ago, toward the end of August, this same line happened, only it was with Mars instead of Venus, and it was higher in the sky, later in the evening. Well, times change, and Scorpius, which is one of the most summery of summer constellations, has made its way further to the west, getting ready to head off on its winter vacation. Meanwhile, Mars is making its way higher and higher into the night sky, pulling farther away from the others, deeper into the southern sky.
If you have a few minutes just before dinner, and can get a good view of this, it’s another one of those times when you can see the solar system in action. What was there one day is gone the next… well, a two months later. I hope you can take a look. Clear skies, everyone!