Jimmy Westlake: The queen of the night

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Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight ...

Chances are, the first star you see in the sky tonight and over the next few months will be the brilliant evening star, Venus. Masquerading as a bright star, Venus is actually the second planet orbiting the Sun in our solar system. As such, she can come closer to Earth than any other planet.

Venus appears bright in our sky because of a combination of her proximity to Earth, her proximity to the Sun, and her thick, cloudy atmosphere. Venus is completely enshrouded in a planet-wide cloud layer that reflects 76 percent of the sunlight that falls on it. Earth, for comparison, is only 39 percent reflective. And, because she is closer to the Sun than Earth, Venus receives nearly twice the sunlight per unit area that Earth does. Consequently, Venus gleams at us almost like a mirror reflecting the sunlight in the night.

Telescopically, Venus shows phases like our Moon does. She is currently in a fat gibbous phase, not quite full, and will reach quarter phase around the first week of June. After that, Venus will become a beautiful slender crescent until passing between the Earth and Sun on Aug. 18.

Because Venus is nearly the same size, mass and density as Earth, she has sometimes been called the Earth's twin or sister planet. Oh, but what a twisted sister she is! Her clouds hide a surface that most closely resembles the inside of a pressure cooker, with temperatures of 900 F and a pressure equal to 90 Earth-atmospheres. Her pretty white clouds are made of sulfuric acid droplets, deadly to living organisms. It's amazing such a beautiful object in our night sky, representing the goddess of love, could be such a hellish place.

Watch Venus during the first days of April as she approaches and then glides past the equally beautiful Pleiades star cluster on the night of Wednesday, April 11. A week later, on Thursday, April 19, the slender crescent moon, glowing with earthshine, will position itself right between dazzling Venus and the twinkly stars of the Pleiades. In those spellbinding moments of April 19, you will understand why Venus deserves to wear the crown of the Queen of the Night!

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