In the second half of November, Venus will be as bright as it ever gets. To see the Venus show, you’ll need to wake up before sunrise and look toward the east-southeast. Venus will be—by far – the brightest object in the sky. Venus never ventures very far from the Sun, so it’s best viewed only a few times a year, when the planetary geometry is just right and then only shortly after sunset or shortly before sunrise. On these occasions, Venus is known as either the Evening Star or the Morning Star.
Venus and Earth DO have some things in common, though not as much as once thought. They are the second and third closest planets to the Sun. Being closer to the Sun means a year on Venus—the time it takes to revolve once around the Sun—lasts 224.7 days compared to Earth’s 365 days. The two planets are composed mainly of rocky material and are nearly the same size, with Venus just slightly smaller. If you weigh 125 pounds on Earth you would weigh about 113 pounds on Venus. Venus comes closer to Earth than any other planet, a mere 24 million miles, and that’s the main reason why it’s so bright.
Because of its similarities to Earth, Venus became the subject of some very fanciful (and quite incorrect) theories. Among the most popular was the supposed existence of complex life on Venus. It was imagined that because it is closer to the Sun than Earth, Venus might simply a warmer, wetter version of our planet. Some believed Venus to be a world of rain forests and jungles, replete with giant trees, dinosaurs, and even intelligent Venusians.
As our scientific knowledge advanced, astronomers learned that Venus is not just warm, it’s excruciatingly hot. The surface temperature reaches 872 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead. Venus is also a world of volcanoes, and the whole planet is wrapped in a thick atmosphere comprised mostly of carbon dioxide. This dense atmosphere insulates the planet, preventing heat from escaping and resulting in a runaway greenhouse effect. Venus is an intensely inhospitable place. So much for the rain forest theory!
When the age of space exploration began, Venus’ close proximity meant it became the very first target for interplanetary spacecraft. America’s Mariner 2 was the first successful probe, flying past Venus in 1962. The first successful landing did not come until 1970 when the Soviet Venera 7 spacecraft touched down. Due to the extreme conditions on the planet, it is highly unlikely that a manned landing on Venus will ever be attempted.
This month’s sky map shows Venus where it appears early on Thanksgiving morning, blazing near the bright star Spica in the constellation Virgo the Virgin. The map is accurate any time during the last two weeks of November, so bundle up if necessary and enjoy Venus at its best!
In the words of Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” from 1959:
Hey, Venus! Oh, Venus!
Make my dreams come true!
Few who gaze longingly at Venus are aware of the planet’s oddities.
- Venus’ surface never budges from about 850°F, day and night.
- The air is suffocatingly dense, packed with 50 times greater pressure than a pressure cooker.
- Its atmosphere provides no oxygen whatsoever.
- Venus’ day is longer than its year. Venus spins on its axis in 243 Earth-days but orbits the Sun in 225 Earth-days.
- Its clouds are made of white sulfuric acid. Because of this, Venus is deceivingly reflective as a mirror; fully 76 percent of the sunlight gets bounced away from the shiniest planet in our solar system.
- Beneath clouds of concentrated acid droplets lies clear compressed air that distorts everything into fun-house-mirror images.
Interestingly, the Venusian surface is brightly lit despite being eternally overcast. With illumination that equals Earth’s on a cloudy day, even inexpensive disposable cameras would take correctly exposed photos there, a situation encountered on no other planet.
Of course, no budding photographer or human being is likely to go to Venus. Ever. It’s touching that we named the most luminous “star” after the love goddess. For all eternity, our nearest planet—that dazzling beacon in the western sky—will tantalize with a warning label: Look but don’t touch.