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Brilliant Venus

January 7, 2011

The planet Venus stands farthest from the Sun for its current "morning-star" appearance early tomorrow. It rises about four hours before the Sun, and is high in the southeast at first light.

Venus has played an important role in the star lore and astronomy of many cultures. Not only is it the brightest object in the night sky after the Moon, but it moves back and forth between evening and morning sky -- a perfect celestial metaphor for death and rebirth.

Venus was especially important in Mesoamerica. Mayan astronomer-priests carefully observed the planet, for example, often from viewing platforms built just for that purpose. Over the decades, they compiled detailed records of the planet's motions.

They discovered that Venus completes five repeating patterns across the sky every eight years. Their observations allowed them to predict Venus's appearance in the morning or evening sky decades or even centuries into the future. They knew just when it would rise or set, and just where it would rise or set along the horizon.

That allowed them to make Venus an important part of everyday life. Rituals and ceremonies were timed to coincide with Venus's most important appearances -- its first appearance in the morning or evening sky, for example, or its greatest distance from the Sun. And its motions along the horizon were incorporated into Mayan architecture -- making Venus one of the most important objects on Earth as well as in the night sky.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

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