When the Evening Star reaches its maximum separation from the sun and this happens between January and March...well, that's when Venus gets exceptionally prominent. It happens every few years; that's when it lights up the west like a searchlight the first hours after nightfall.
This makes people around the world go on a binge of misidentification. Venus alone accounts for more than half of all UFO reports. And they don't all come from dimwits. My two favorite Venus stories: Jimmy Carter, while governor of Georgia, phoned the State Police to report a UFO that proved to be Venus. And a squadron of Allied bombers returning from a mission over Japan in World War II saw a brilliant light that appeared to keep pace with them. Firing their guns, they attempted, without success, to blow up the Evening Star. At our Overlook Observatory phone and during Public Radio call-in shows, when someone begins a sentence with "I've been seeing a star..." I obnoxiously interrupt them with, "It's Venus."
Its creamy-white brilliance, from sunlight bouncing off shiny clouds of sulfuric acid, is oddly steady. It rarely twinkles. And it's dazzling enough to cast shadows on snow when seen from a dark place. Wait for the third week for February for this, when there's no moon to compete.
Venus is the most unpleasant planet in the known universe. Its surface temperature never varies from 850 degrees: hotter than a woodstove. The air is 100 percent carbon dioxide, trapping in the sun's heat like a blanket. That's why Venus manages to have a hotter surface than even Mercury. This was the original "greenhouse effect" model, long before that phrase's current popularity. And it gets worse: Air pressure remains stuck at 90 Earth-pressures, making it the most efficient pressure-cooker in this neck of the galaxy. A few seconds would do it for beef stew.
Sometimes called our "sister planet" since its diameter and density are nearly the same as ours, all family resemblance ends right there. Goddess of Love, sure. As the night's brightest "star," it's appropriate that it be forever associated with love. But it's strictly a "look but don't touch" affair.
Take an icy stroll between 5 and 8 p.m. and your gaze will automatically be caught by the Evening Star. The next five weeks are the pinnacle of its entire ten-month Evening Star apparition. It'll be so eye-catching at magnitude -5 that it's unnecessary to seek it out. On her own, the Love Goddess will catch your eye.