In the Sky: The planet of love |

In the Sky: The planet of love

Tom Egan
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

While the sun and the moon are the two dominant features in our basic celestial world, occasionally other astronomical events or extraterrestrial bodies ” many predictable, some spontaneous ” quite literally enter the picture and for a time we get to enjoy new, if temporary, lead players in the sky’s usual nightly drama.

Along those lines we are currently being treated to a dazzling display in the western sky in the hour or two after sunset that is both magnificent and instructive at once: Please welcome our nearest and dearest heavenly neighbor, Venus, planet of love.

Though usually relegated to something of a solar/lunar supporting role among the non-technically oriented star gazers among us, our other nearby planetary neighbors ” the other seven official planets (sorry, Pluto) right here in the solar system ” occasionally take center stage due to various orbital alignments and solar angles.

Because its orbit is physically closer to the sun than the Earth’s ” and thus closer to the light source ” Venus ultimately appears brighter than any of the other visible-to-the-naked-eye planets ever can (Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are all farther from the sun than the Earth and thus reflect a weaker sunlight while closest-to-the-sun Mercury is much smaller and often washes out in the sun’s nearby glare) and for the next six weeks will continue to shine brightly while anchoring the post-sunset western sky.

It will be near the crescent moon on Jan. 29 and will remain a bright nightly visitor through a second, even more spectacular conjunction with the moon on Feb. 27. The planet of love will also be appropriately quite brilliant the evening of Valentine’s Day and really takes on quite a “planetary” profile through a common pair of binoculars.

Also on the predictable side of the ledger, 2009 will host a total of six eclipses, arguably the most mythical of astronomical events. However, the two solar eclipses of the lot (Jan. 26 and July 21) will only be visible outside of North America, and none of the four lunar eclipses will be either total or particularly impressive.

While that last statement might be rightly seen as a subjective comment, the penumbral and partial lunar versions occurring this year don’t do much more than dim the moon’s glow a bit: no cool-looking crescents moving across the face, no strange orange hue, no werewolves growing whiskers.

Still, the moon’s reflective light on the snow and the particular sparkle the stars seem to have in winter continue to make the stargazing fabulous. Enjoy!

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