More Moon and Venus

StarDate: September 15, 2009

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There's a beautiful conjunction in the eastern sky at dawn tomorrow -- a meeting of the crescent Moon, the planet Venus, and the star Regulus. Venus is the brilliant "morning star" a little to the left of the Moon, while Regulus is below Venus.

Because it's such an enchanting sight, Venus was named for the goddess of love and beauty. In reality, though, the planet is more like something out of a horror movie: a temptress who lures you in with her looks, then throws you into a nightmarish dungeon.

In this case, the dungeon is the planet's surface.

Venus is enwrapped in a dense atmosphere. At the planet's surface, the air pressure is about 90 times greater than at Earth's surface. And Venus's atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide, which traps the Sun's heat. It's turned the planet into a furnace, with temperatures of more than 850 degrees Fahrenheit.

At night, the surface may glow dull red from the heat. And big volcanoes may add to the hellish environment; some of them may still belch molten lava onto the surface, and noxious gases into the air.

And as befits a dungeon, once you're there, it's hard to get out. That's because Venus's atmosphere is topped by clouds of sulfuric acid -- clouds that surround the entire planet.

So don't be seduced by the beauty of this bright little planet. It's only skin deep.

We'll talk about a world at the opposite end of the planetary scale tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

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

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