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Mon, 28 Nov 2016

That bright star in the south-west

Venus in the evening sky

Venus on 28 November

There have been some lovely clear nights across the UK recently, and lots of people have been commenting about the "bright star" shining low in the sky towards the south-west after sunset. "It's the Pole Star!" some people have said. "It's the space station..." others have thought. Actually, it's neither – it's the planet Venus, currently shining as a beautiful "Evening Star" in the northern hemisphere. And if you think it's bright now, wait until you see how bright it is at Christmas....

Venus photographed with a smartphoneVenus is the second world out from the Sun, and is roughly the same size as Earth. But that's where the similarity ends really, even though Venus is sometimes referred to as "Earth's Twin". Venus looks so beautiful in the sky (fittingly, as it is named after the Goddess of Love) because its atmosphere is a thick, choking blanket of carbon dioxide that reflects bright sunlight back into space like a mirror, making it appear as a dazzling "star" in our sky. Sometimes it shines in the east before sunrise, and then it's often called "The Morning Star". At the moment it's in the point of its orbit around the Sun that brings it into view after sunset, so it is our "Evening Star", and will remain so well into 2017. 

You'll be able to spot Venus easily after 5 pm, when it will be a very obvious bright "star" in the south west. You won't even have to look for it, it will just shout out "I'm here!" at you as you look around the sky. But if you like a challenge, start looking for Venus around 4.15, and see how long it takes you to spot the planet shining in the golden twilight. Sweeping the sky with binoculars will help you find it more quickly, but ONLY after the Sun has set. The photo at right was taken using a phone camera a few nights ago.

Once you've found Venus look for a fainter "star" shining to its upper left, at around the ten o'clock position. This is another planet, Mars, and you'll notice it has a reddish-orange tinge to it, especially when you compare it to the silvery spark of Venus. 

Stuart Atkinson


Added by: Robin Scagell