Although the ancient skywatchers knew the difference between stars (which are fixed relative to each other) and planets (which wander around the sky), they dubbed the planet Venus the “Evening Star” when seen after sunset (and the “Morning Star” seen before sunrise). As the third brightest object in the heavens after the Sun and Moon, it’s easy to see why they would.
On the evening of October 29th, Venus reaches “greatest eastern elongation” 47 degrees east of Sun. It’s been gracing the evening sky for several months now and will continue to do so as it slowly moves back toward the Sun after that date. If you are fortunate enough to own a telescope, even a 2- or 3-inch glass at a magnification of 30X to 50X will show the planet half-illuminated like a miniature of our own Moon when at its half phase. Even a pair of binoculars will clearly show its tiny non-stellar disk. The best view in either case is to be had in twilight while the sky isn’t completely dark—reducing the glare from the planet.
Venus has often been called the Earth’s sister planet due to their similarity in size. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Venus is closer to the Sun than we are and is shrouded in a dense atmosphere which creates a runaway greenhouse effect. Temperatures on the surface are hotter than an oven, precluding any chance of life being there. Recently however, astrobiologists and planetary scientists have come to the realization that there is a region high up in the outer atmosphere that is much cooler and have detected possible molecules that could indicate the presence of some form of primitive life. So as you gaze at Venus on October evenings, think about what wonders may yet await discovery under its dazzling cloud cover!
One of the year’s best displays of shooting stars is the Orionid Meteor Shower, which peaks this month on the evening of October 21st into the morning hours of the 22nd. Unfortunately, the Full Moon occurs just two nights before on the 20th, pretty much wiping out all but the very brightest meteors. Still, be alert to unexpectedly catching one of these while out under the relaxing moonlight.
— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.