SKY WATCH

Burning Like a Silver Flame, Venus Brings Desire Amid the Heavens

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 1, 2009

That's amore: The planet Venus, named for the Roman goddess of love, is a brilliant beacon throughout this month.

At dusk now, find Venus easily high above the western horizon. Tonight you can see a young moon above the illuminated planet, and tomorrow evening the moon will be higher and away from it.

In general, Venus is visible in the western sky all month, as an early evening object. Seeing it makes the heart flutter, as this robust -4 magnitude (very bright) object is the third brightest in the heavens, aside from the sun and the moon. At the end of the month, sky gazers will enjoy a repeat performance as the next young moon sashays with Venus. On Feb. 27, the moon is next to it, and on Feb. 28, the moon moves above Venus.

Saturn ascends the eastern sky about 8:45 p.m. now, tagging along the back end of the constellation Leo. The ringed planet is a zero magnitude object, bright enough to see from any light-polluted urban area. By mid-month, Saturn will rise an hour earlier. It will climb the eastern sky at dusk at the end of February.

Morning traffic jam: The sky features Mercury, Jupiter and Mars scrunched together, loitering in the east-southeast. Before sunrise, you'll need a clear view of the horizon to find them because they are very low in the sky.

On Feb. 22, the waning moon will join these three planets. Mars will be closest to the horizon, then Jupiter will be slightly higher, then Mercury and the moon. Changing places: The next morning, Mercury will snuggle next to Jupiter, and the moon will be below Mars. Mercury and Jupiter will remain together the next morning, too, but fleet Mercury will slip away on subsequent mornings.

Groundhog Day, tomorrow, is considered an astronomical cross-quarter day, denoting the middle of winter. (It's how older societies knew when to prepare for spring.) Officially, the middle of winter occurs Wednesday at 6:53 p.m., according to Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Thus, whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not, spring will start March 20.

Down-to-Earth Events

· Tomorrow: "Spectacular Saturn: Images From the Cassini-Huygens Mission," a new photography exhibit, opens at the National Air and Space Museum, the Mall. http://www.nasm.si.edu

· Tomorrow: Learn the astronomical significance of Groundhog Day in "The Stars Tonight," hosted by Jonathan Harmon, planetarium director. This program is at Arlington County's David M. Brown Planetarium, 1426 N. Quincy St., adjacent to Washington-Lee High School. 7:30 p.m. $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and children. For details, call 703-228-6070. http://www.apsva.us/planetarium.


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