Moon and Venus

StarDate: January 29, 2009

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Hundreds of twinkling lights pop into view as darkness falls this evening -- the distant stars. They're all so far away that they move across the sky as a group, maintaining the same patterns year after year, century after century.

But a few objects wander through the stars. Greek skywatchers called these objects "planets" -- a word that means "wanderers." They can move a noticeable amount in a month, a week, or even a night.

The most prominent "wanderer" is in the west this evening -- the planet Venus. It's the brilliant "evening star" to the upper left of the Moon.

Because Venus is so bright, it was one of the most important objects in the skylore and mythology of many cultures. It was particularly revered by the people of Mesoamerica.

The Maya built much of their culture around Venus. The planet's exact position in the sky played a role in deciding when to start wars or crown kings. And the planet was crucial to much of the Maya's religion and ceremony.

It's not surprising, then, that the Maya kept a close eye on Venus. They built observatories for watching the planet, and aligned many of their temples toward important rising and setting points. And they compiled detailed records of Venus's motion through the sky. Those observations played a role in devising the Mayan calendar, which allowed them to predict the planet's motion far into the future -- no matter where it wandered.

More about Venus and the Moon tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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