Saturday, August 18 , 2018, 12:35 am | Fair 69º


Dennis Mammana: Venus at Center of a Beautiful Sky Show

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View a beautiful sight at dusk. (Dennis Mammana illustration /

Have you been watching the remarkable jewel sparkling in the western sky after sunset? Some may have missed it because of thick clouds or mountains blocking the view, but as June progresses you’ll see it climbing higher in the sky from night to night as it rounds the sun in our direction.

As people spot its brilliant light for the first time, misconceptions about what it is will begin to pop up. Of course, I hope regular readers of this column won’t fall prey to them, but you may encounter some in your interactions with less experienced stargazers.

Perhaps the most common misconception of novice sky watchers is that the brilliant light of Venus is an approaching aircraft with its landing light on. If you live near a major airport, it’s an easy mistake to make; truth be told, I’ve even fallen for it once myself!

Another common belief is that it’s the International Space Station, or ISS. While the ISS can occasionally appear as bright as Venus, it orbits the Earth at 17,000 mph, so it appears to sail smoothly across our sky. Venus doesn’t. If you visit the website, you can predict the passage of the real ISS across your sky.

Perhaps most puzzling to me is the idea that this bright celestial beacon is the North Star. I guess its appearance in the west doesn’t seem to bother them!

Whenever you encounter misconceptions such as these — and I’m sure you will — be patient and take time to explain what people are actually seeing. Helping others enjoy the wonders of the night sky is a tremendously rewarding way to spend your time.

Ever since childhood, I’ve always enjoyed the company of Venus in the glow of twilight, especially when it’s nuzzled up against the delicate crescent moon. Fortunately, this sight is not all that uncommon, occurring once a month or so as the moon orbits our planet. And such a pairing is coming up this week.

On Friday, June 15, look for the delicate crescent moon to appear just below brilliant Venus in the waning light of dusk. The following night you will see it above Venus, since it will have drifted in its orbit around the Earth.

Few celestial sights appear more three-dimensional, so be sure to check the pair out with binoculars. You’ll surely enjoy seeing the faint disk of the full moon, the result of sunlight reflected off the Earth back onto the dark side of the moon.

The appearance of this ghostly glow was first explained by the famous 15th-century Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. He recognized that when the moon appears as a crescent in our sky, a hypothetical lunar observer would see in the sky a nearly full Earth.

And, just as a bright moon illuminates the dark night here, a bright Earth would illuminate even more the darkness of the moon’s surface. Today we call this phenomenon “Earthshine.”

Be sure to mark your calendars for this week’s beautiful sky show; I know I’ll be out keeping watch at dusk, reliving fond memories that extend way back to my childhood.

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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