Yes, “a.m.” Venus is a morning star. It’s that single dazzling star that you may have already seen just before dawn in the southeast. If you think that looking east at 6 a.m. is a lot to ask, well…it’s nearly as late as is ever possible to see the morning star.
Venus is at its brightest, too, at an intense magnitude -4.9. Right now, it displays a momentary spurt of prominence and brilliance, during which police stations and observatories routinely report a flood of UFO reports. Obviously, “conspicuous” does not automatically mean recognizable. For many, that riveting beacon is assumed to be an oncoming airplane or alien spacecraft – not a cloud-covered, Earth-sized globe 30 million miles away.
In the ebb-and-flow fashion world of what’s hot and what’s not in planetary science, Venus is out and Mars gets virtually all of NASA’s attention, with a flotilla of probes launched every 26 months. Still, Venus has been mapped by radar and had its atmosphere and surface probed – enough to prove that its forbiddingly hostile surface, broiling under crushing pressures with a steady 850 degrees of heat, removes any possibility of indigenous life or future human visitation. This has yielded all “Let’s go there” excitement to the Red Planet alone. Yet to the naked eye, Venus always outshines all other worlds.
Dazzling from cities and rural areas alike, high enough to stand nicely above horizon obstructions, Venus is at its very best right now and through the first half of January. But then, quite suddenly, our sister world will come crashing down. It will hover impossibly low amid horizon obstructions throughout all of 2011. It has “off years” every eight years, and 2011 will be the worst of the worst, matching its dismal showing of 2003. Indeed, Venus will not return to easy visibility until a full year from now, and even then it will only be half as bright as it is at present.
So, sure, look out that east-facing window at 6 or 6:15 a.m. There it stands, about a quarter of the way up the sky. The blue star to its upper right is Virgo’s Spica. And just above Spica is Saturn, now returning for what will be a glorious apparition that will peak in April.
December is this year’s primo sky-month, with a fabulous meteor shower coming up on the 13th and then a total lunar eclipse a week later. But this weekend belongs to Venus. It won’t again hover this high or this bright until 2012.