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Bright, alluring Venus flaunts early evening charm

That brilliant evening beacon hanging in the southwestern evening sky is our neighboring planet Venus. With the unaided eye, you’ll easily see it at dusk and it will captivate you into the early evening.

Venus approaching the Pleiades on March 31, 2012 (Jimmy Westlake via NASA)

Behold its beauty with clear skies Saturday and Sunday nights (but bundle up). You cannot escape its charm, as Venus is a negative 4.8 magnitude (very bright), according to the almanac Observer’s Handbook 2013, by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Three weeks ago, on Nov. 1, Venus was about 49 percent illuminated from our perspective and it was about 5.5 light minutes or 61.5 million miles from Earth. Venus had an incredibly respectable negative 4.5 magnitude – bright enough that we mortals took notice.

Our neighboring planet gets closer: Tonight, for example, Venus – lounging in the constellation Sagittarius – will be closer at 4.2 light minutes away. That’s 46.6 million miles from Earth.

For the period between Thanksgiving and the New Year, it remains an early evening one-planet light show. (By the way, it’s not a light source, but thanks to the shroud of perpetual sulfuric clouds, it’s reflecting sunlight.)

This effervescent – though sulfuric – planet on Dec. 1 reaches about 41 million miles away. From the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the magnitude estimate is an astounding negative 4.9 (incredibly bright) – where it will seem like a loitering, leftover Fourth of July white flare in southwestern dusk and evening sky.

Venus reaches “greatest illuminated extent” on Dec. 6, according to the almanac Astronomical Phenomena 2013, published by the Nautical Almanac Office, U.S. Naval Observatory. That’s when the planet will be 37.8 million miles away – or about 3.4 light-minutes away.

After Venus sets over the weekend, refresh your hot coffee, and then return to catch Jupiter ascend the northeastern sky, just after 8 p.m.  That gaseous giant planet relishes the primetime hours and casual skygazers can enjoy the planet’s brightness. Jupiter is at about negative 2.5 magnitude (bright) now, chilling in the Gemini constellation.

Our other planetary neighbor Mars (in the constellation Leo) is best seen  just before morning twilight –  in all of it’s first magnitude glory. The red planet rises high in the southeastern, morning sky until the sunrise washes out visibility.

For the morning heavens, find a spot with good horizon view since Mercury and Saturn dance together before dawn – in the east-southeastern sky – on Monday, Nov. 25. Before that, Mercury is slightly higher in the morning sky:  You’ll see the planets move closer (both at about zero magnitude, bright) together on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

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Ian Livingston · November 22, 2013

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