Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Love Lingers on Horizon

Love Lingers on Horizon
by Dave Adalian

Those looking for love on Valentine’s Day will have an easy job of it--all they need do is turn to the west at sunset.

What they’ll find there is the brightest of the nine planets, Venus, blazing boldly in white as the Evening Star, outshining everything else in the sky but Sun and Moon.

To the Romans, Venus was the goddess of love, presiding over affairs of the heart. It is her blindfolded son, Cupid, with his bow and arrow who is responsible for so much joy and sorrow here on Earth; “Cupid” comes from the Latin cupido, which translates as “desire.”

While Venus is already a spectacular sight during the three hours after dusk, she’s still only warming up. She’ll continue to climb a little higher in the western sky each night until March 28, when she reaches greatest eastern elongation.

Though no farther away from the Sun that day than any other time during her 225-day orbit--the roundest one in our Solar System--Venus will then appear as far from the Sun as she can, as seen from Earth.

Earth and Venus are almost twins in size. Venus is 202 miles thinner at the waist than Earth, but carries only 85 percent as much mass. This may be due to losing her water into space.

Besides being drier than any desert on Earth, Venus is absolutely hellish. At the surface, the pressure of her carbon dioxide atmosphere is equal to being six-tenths of a mile underwater, and the sky is covered perpetually beneath clouds of sulfuric acid.

Those clouds have started a runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, raising temperatures to nearly 900 degrees--easily hot enough to melt lead.

Cloud cover also causes Venus to shine so brightly. The miles-thick layers of sulfuric acid clouds are extremely reflective, bouncing back most of the sunlight that strikes them.

Because Venus orbits closer to the Sun than Earth, she appears to us to go through phases like the Moon. Now, she looks through a telescope to be slightly pregnant. As March 28 approaches, Venus will slim to last quarter. In weeks following, she’ll diminish to a sliver as she slips deeper into twilight each night.

Some, myself included, claim to have seen the shape of Venus with naked eyes. A good night to try this may be Feb. 23 when Venus shares the sky with a thin crescent of new Moon.


This column originally appeared in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta on Feb. 10 , 2004.

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