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The planet Venus is always a dazzler. It outshines everything else in the night sky except the Moon, and is even bright enough to see during the daytime -- if you know just where to look.
Now, though, thanks to a couple of factors, the planet is at its brilliant best. It shines more than 20 times brighter than the brightest true star in the night sky.
One of those factors is distance. Venus and Earth are moving closer together, and will be closest in early June, when the planet crosses between Earth and the Sun. In fact, it’ll pass across the Sun, creating a rare astronomical event known as a transit.
Another factor is the fraction of the hemisphere that faces Earth that’s illuminated by the Sun. Venus is a thick crescent right now, just like a crescent Moon. Over the coming weeks, that crescent will grow thinner as Venus moves closer to the Sun in our sky.
At times, we actually see an almost full Venus, when you might expect the planet to shine brightest. But that phase occurs when Venus is on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth, so the greater distance dulls its luster.
So when you combine the planet’s distance and its phase, the next few nights offer Venus at its best.
Look for the planet well up in the west as night begins to fall, shining as the brilliant “evening star.” You just can’t miss it. It drops down the western sky during the evening, and sets by around midnight.
Tomorrow: discovering a “loud” galaxy.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012