It’s Not Planet X, That’s for Sure
Astronomers and planetarium folk have been getting the usual phone calls about “something bright in the West” after sunset. It’s true. There is something bright out there… but it’s disappearing fast. It’s the planet Venus, and it’s sinking lower into the western sky each day, and brightens up the post-sunset sky like a jewel hanging there against the dusk.
I love going out to look at Venus. It’s really quite beautiful, and it’s easy to understand why some early observers would call it a goddess. It just gleams in the sky.
Venus looks bright because it’s a cloud-covered world, and those clouds reflect sunlight. Also, it’s a bit closer to us in its orbit right now, and thus appears bigger and brighter.
Venus has a long history in science fiction of being a swamp world or a desert world. I remember reading some early science fiction where people from Earth were eking out a living among dinosaur-type creatures. Another book in my library, written in the late 50s, had Earthlings settling on a dry and dusty cloud-covered Venus, and ultimately launching attacks on Earth.
Those stories were WAY off the mark however. In the 1960s, we sent our first probes to Venus, and right away discovered the truth: a world with a poisonous atmosphere that is so heavy it destroyed the probes that landed on the planet. Later on, orbiters such as the Magellan mission mapped the volcanoes of Venus, showing us once and for all that our “sister planet” is not a very hospitable place.
But, or course, you don’t see that when you gaze at the orb of Venus hanging low in the western sky these May nights. That doesn’t make it less lovely to ponder as the sky darkens. Before too long, Venus will be a morning object, right after it transits the Sun on June 5/6. So, go check it out. Here’s a map to get you started!