That brilliant object hanging low in the southwestern sky is an old, old friend, not an airplane with fantastic high beams. As Venus glistens, it's the brightest object in space, aside from the moon and the sun.
Right now, Venus won't be visible very long because when we get to see it, it's in the process of setting. But, with each passing evening, she'll stay in view later and later. Earth's sister planet shines at -3.9 magnitude and that translates into extremely bright.
The other bright object climbing the eastern part of the heavens right now is Jupiter, who stands guard throughout the night. Jupiter, by Jove, although not as brilliant as Venus, struts through the evening, high across the southern sky. That large, gaseous planet shines at a magnitude half that of Venus, at - 2.6. That's still bright enough to see from the middle of a city.
The dominant winter constellation is Orion and, like cosmic clockwork, this winter is no different. Orion is that huge constellation, shaped like an awkward "H" in the southeastern sky in the evening.
After finding it, you can spot Sirius, the Dog Star, from the constellation Canis Major. In a direct line from Orion's belt, to the left, you can see Sirius happily blinking away. Although it may appear to be blue through the imperfect aperture of the atmosphere, it actually is a white star.
Mars, although quickly receding, still is visible almost directly above us, late in the evening sky. The red planet is hanging around his cronies in Taurus, virtually wedged against the seven sisters in the Pleiades cluster. As long as you're in a fairly dark sky, you'll be able to observe the fading Mars.
After you've found the red planet, look for the red-tinted star Antares early on Friday morning. The partially lit moon will cross in front of Antares in an event called an occultation. Astronomers use the information from occultations to test lunar topography. This particular occultation starts here around 4 a.m.. About 1 1/2 hours later, Antares reappears from behind the moon. The rising moon will be sitting low in the southeastern sky, so it could be very difficult to see from area neighborhoods.
Down-to-Earth Events Feb. 13 -- Robert Harrington, an astronomer with the Naval Observatory, discusses the possibility of planets around other stars. 7:30 p.m. Arlington Planetarium, adjacent to Washington-Lee High School. Adults, $2; students and senior citizens, $1. Reservations, 703-358-6070.
Feb. 13 -- Chick Woodward of the University of Minnesota explains how to hunt young stars at the center of the galaxy in "Star Search: Infrared Scanning Techniques." Langley Theater at the Air & Space Museum. Free.
Feb. 20 -- Herschel Payne and Gerry Wolczanski of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club explain the process of grinding and polishing mirrors for telescopes. 7:30 p.m. Arlington Planetarium. Free.
March 2 -- Herbert Friedman, emeritus director of the space science program at the Naval Research Laboratory, scouts quasars, pulsars and black holes in a peek at "The Astronomer's Universe." Einstein Planetarium. 9:30 a.m. Free.