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Sonoma County Gazette
Guide to the Night Sky

Guide to the Night Sky

Mar 16, 2018
by Tre Gibbs


The incredibly bright planet Venus, which was “The Morning Star” for most of last year, has been slowly making her return as “The Evening Star” since late January, gradually climbing higher and higher in the western sky, but still appearing relatively low all month long.  Around mid June however, Venus will reach her peak elevation, though only about 24 degrees above the horizon, which is roughly one third of the way up the sky. Venus will then begin her slow and gradual decent, finally disappearing below the western horizon sometime near mid October, on her way to once again becoming “The Morning Star”.

Venus is a very interesting world.

Often referred to as Earth’s sister planet, Venus could not be more different from Earth. For example:

1)  Venus is the hottest planet in our solar system. One would think Mercury would be hotter because it’s the closest planet to the sun. But Venus’ atmosphere is loaded with carbon dioxide, which has caused a runaway greenhouse effect. An average day on Venus would be about 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Lead melts at that temperature.

2)  The air pressure on Venus is about the same as the pressure at a depth of 1 kilometer in Earth’s oceans. It would crush you to death.

3)  On Earth, the clouds are made of water vapor. On Venus, the clouds are made of sulphuric acid.

4)  Venus is so bright because it’s not only close but completely shrouded in cloud cover, which does a very good job at reflecting sunlight.

5)  Venus rotates slowly. VERY slowly. So slowly, that it actually completes one orbit around the sun before it completes one rotation on it’s axis. Therefore, Venus’ day is longer than it’s year.

6)  Venus also rotates opposite Earth, so on Venus, the sun rises in the west and sets in the east.

Mighty (and also bright) Jupiter, The Roman King of the Gods, is making his way back to our evening skies as well. Jupiter is the 4th brightest object in the sky after the sun, moon and Venus - in that order. Early in the month, on April 2nd, you can easily spot Jupiter (weather permitting) as the bright object directly under the moon, both rising in the east southeast around 11:00 - 11:30 pm. By month’s end, on April 29th, Jupiter rises around 9:00 pm, again, underneath the moon. Both will be well above the southeastern horizon by 10:00 pm, shining like beacons. Saturn, The Roman God of Agriculture and Mars, The Roman God of War, start off the month rising as a pair around 3:00 am, with Saturn traveling above his orange-ish tinted cosmic counterpart. In fact, look for both wanderers around 4:00 am on April 7th, just under a waning, almost three quarter (or half full) moon. Also keep in mind that Mars, moving faster in it’s orbit around the sun than Saturn, is gradually slipping eastward underneath Saturn and by month’s end, both rise almost an hour apart, Saturn first around 1:00 am and Mars following around 2:00 am.

“Did You Know?” 

Easter is not based on a particular date, like Christmas or New Year’s but rather on astronomical cycles. Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the Spring Equinox, which is why Easter falls sometimes in March and sometimes in April. For example - this year the Spring Equinox was on March 20th, the first full moon after that was Saturday March 31st, therefore Sunday April 1st is (was) Easter. Valuable information, especially the next time you hear someone ask, “When is Easter this year?”  ;)

Until next month, keep looking up - there’s a great show above happening every night!



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