The "evening star" is putting on quite a show this month. The planet Venus pops into good view in the western sky by 20 or 30 minutes after sunset. And as the sky darkens, it blazes like a beacon, drawing all eyes toward its dazzling beauty.
In fact, Venus is standing farthest from the Sun for its current evening appearance. After tonight, it will begin dropping toward the Sun, and will disappear in the Sun's glare in late October.
Its distance from the Sun doesn't mean that Venus stands especially high in the sky, though. That's because its path across the sky is tilted at a shallow angle to the horizon. As Venus sets, it scoots along the horizon from left to right instead of dropping straight down.
That path is known as the ecliptic. Technically, it's the Sun's path across the sky. But Venus and the other planets orbit in the plane of the ecliptic, so they stay within a few degrees of the ecliptic as they move across the sky. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, at this time of year the ecliptic stands high around mid-day, so the Sun crosses high across the sky. By sunset, though, the ecliptic has dropped to a lower angle, so the planets stay fairly low in the sky.
Even so, Venus is still easy to find. Look for it blazing in the west-southwest shortly after sunset. And as the sky darkens, look for another planet just above Venus: orange Mars. The planets drop from sight by a couple of hours after sunset.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.