The Planet Venus -- Earth's Fiery Twin
Look in the western sky after the Sun has set and there you will find the planet Venus shining like a brilliant beacon. Venus has been known since prehistoric times and was named by the Romans for the goddess of love and beauty. And what a beautiful sight Venus makes as it hangs in the glow of evening twilight.
Commonly referred to as The Evening Star, Venus is always dazzling, the brightest object in the night sky after the Moon. The reason for its brilliance is the fact that Venus is entirely covered in thick clouds that strongly reflect light from the Sun, and that Venus gets nearer to Earth than any other planet. It was once believed that below the clouds Venus might be Earth-like and even have life. After all the planet is about the same size as Earth and not all that much closer to the Sun. Nothing could be further from the truth.
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After years of study and visits by 20 spacecraft, including landings in the 70's and 80's by the Soviet Venera craft that transmitted atmospheric and surface data, scientists now know much about the second-closest planet to the Sun. The clouds on Venus are made up of sulfuric acid and are many kilometers thick. Below the clouds the atmosphere is almost entirely carbon dioxide gas. At its surface the temperature is a blistering 465°C (869°F) due to the Greenhouse Effect and the atmospheric pressure is a crushing 90 times that on Earth. Far from being an Earth-like paradise Venus is more like our vision of Hell!
Venus circles the Sun every 225 days in an orbit inside our own and in doing so exhibits phases like the Moon. When on the far side of the Sun as seen from Earth (superior conjunction), it presents a small full disk (lost in the Sun's glare). As it gets closer to Earth, Venus appears in our evening sky. The apparent size of its disk grows and it passes through a half phase (at greatest eastern elongation).
A crescent then appears and grows in size as Venus heads towards a position where it lies between the Sun and Earth (known as inferior conjunction). A good pair of binoculars will show Venus as a crescent in the weeks near inferior conjunction (March 30). Try looking for Venus' crescent from late February onwards. Once Venus passes through inferior conjunction it will be moving away from Earth and will soon return to grace the pre-dawn skies and claim its other title as The Morning Star.
Clear skies till next month!