WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Are you astronomically challenged? Venus can help.

Posted January 3, 2009

My Aunt Linda once complained that whenever a television announcer says something special can be seen in the sky that night--say, a meteor shower or the space station--she dutifully heads outside but never sees anything. She said, "I guess I just blame myself for being astronomically challenged (is that a condition?)."

I suspect this is a common condition. And 2009, which is the International Year of Astronomy, is a perfect time to resolve to remedy it.

If you or your family or friends feel astronomically challenged, you and they can build astronomy confidence on the next clear night by identifying the planet Venus.

Why Venus? Venus currently appears in the sky early in the evening. So seeing it does not require freezing oneself outdoors at some ridiculous hour.

Also, Venus is a striking sight. It is very, very bright, outshining all other planets and stars. So it isn't hard to pick out, even if you live in a location suffering from light pollution.

Here's how to identify Venus:

1) Look on the right dates: before mid-March 2009.
Toward the end of March, Venus disappears in the Sun's glare. It will re-appear in April in the early morning sky.

2) Look at the right time: about 30-60 minutes after sunset will be easiest.
If you live in or near the Triangle, try looking during January around 6 p.m.

3) Look in the right direction: toward the southwest.
If you don't know where that is, look toward where the Sun set, using the reddish horizon to guide you roughly in the correct direction.

4) Find the brightest object that looks like a star.
As long as Venus is above the horizon and not hiding behind clouds, trees, or buildings, you WILL see it—even in the middle of Raleigh or anywhere else where outdoor lighting may otherwise wash out your view of the night sky.

Here's what not to mistake Venus for:

- Jupiter. It's in a similar direction as Venus, but lower down and not nearly as bright. Jupiter will disappear from the evening sky before January ends.

- Sirius. It's the brightest star in the night sky, but still not as bright as Venus.

- A bright satellite. Satellites move, taking only a few minutes to cross the sky, whereas Venus won't appear to move noticeably in that amount of time.

To be 100% confident you're seeing Venus, please join Morehead Planetarium and Science Center for a skywatching session. Weather permitting, we'll be at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake on January 3rd from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., and on January 31st from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

At both sessions, we'll view impressively bright Venus and the Moon. During the first hour of the January 3rd session we may also catch a glimpse of Mercury and Jupiter. Put on lots of layers, and bring anyone you know who wants to be astronomically challenged no longer.

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