Jimmy Westlake: An evening star for Christmas
This Christmas season, a beautiful Evening Star will be gleaming in our sky as darkness falls. It’s the planet Venus, and it will be with us throughout the remainder of the winter, casting faint, flickering shadows across the snow.
Venus shines brighter in our sky than any other star-like object. This is due, in part, to the white sulfuric acid clouds that fill its atmosphere, but also because Venus can come closer to Earth than any other planet.
On Christmas Eve, dazzling Venus will appear only 2 degrees from the star Gamma Capricorni, also known by the lovely name Nashira, which means “bringing good tidings.” What could possibly symbolize a more appropriate celestial message of hope for the New Year?
The Red Planet Mars will be a constant companion to the Evening Star this winter. On Christmas Eve, Mars will appear about 15 degrees to the upper left of Venus. That’s about one hand span held out at arm’s length.
Mars is much fainter than Venus, but its ruddy color will give it away. Watch as the gap between Venus and Mars closes over the next few weeks.
By New Year’s Eve, the distance between the two planets will have shrunk to 11 degrees, but something even more significant hides in the background. Aim a telescope at Mars on New Year’s Eve, and you will also see the distant planet Neptune only 1/12 degree away from its ochre disk. Mars will be shining nearly 700 times brighter than Neptune though, so you might have to look hard to spot planet eight.
On New Year’s Day, the 3-day-old crescent moon will join the planets at dusk, about 4 degrees below Venus, and on the following night, the moon will be positioned between Venus and Mars, putting on a fine show.
Venus reaches its greatest angle from the sun, called greatest eastern elongation, on Jan. 12, 2017, when it will remain in the sky for four hours after sunset. Aim a telescope at Venus that night, and you will see what looks like a dazzling half-lit moon, with feeble Neptune only 1/4 of degree away in the far distance.
By Jan. 30, the moon will have gone all the way around the sky and will once again appear below Venus, but the main event will come the following night. On Jan. 31, the slender crescent moon will be positioned just 6 degrees from Venus and only 3 degrees from Mars, the trio forming a striking triangle in the darkening sky.
This night also marks the closest that Venus and Mars will approach each other, about 5 degrees apart, because Venus has rounded the turn in its orbit and will start rapidly sliding back toward the sun.
On the last night of February and the first night of March, the moon will return to the vicinity of Venus and Mars for another encore performance, but this time, not quite as close and spectacular as before. Venus will have drawn 12 degrees away from Mars, with the crescent moon a similar distance away.
This reign of the Evening Star will end on March 25, 2017, when Venus passes between the Earth and the sun in an event called inferior conjunction.
For several days on either side of this date, Venus will be invisible, but by early April, Venus will reappear on the other side of the Ssn and shine as our beautiful Morning Star throughout the spring, summer and fall of 2017.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Steamboat Springs Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper. Check out Jimmy’s new “2017 Cosmic Calendar” of sky events on his website at jwestlake.com. It features 12 of his best astro-photos and a day-by day listing of cool celestial events that you and your family can enjoy watching all year.
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