The solar system’s brightest planet attracts all kinds of attention.
Even without looking up at night or consulting the RASC Observer’s Handbook, I always know when Venus is visible. No, I’m not clairvoyant or preternaturally sensitive to Venus’s gravitational pull—all I have to do is look at my e-mail in-box. “What’s that bright thing in the sky?” Every time Venus graces our evening twilight, as it has for the past several months, I receive a flood of e-mails containing this query or some variant of it.
Some of my e-mailers guess that the object they’re seeing is a planet but aren’t sure which one. Others apply too much imagination to the mystery and arrive at some pretty fantastical conclusions. My most recent favourite came from a woman whose husband insisted that the bright light low in the southwest must be an “NSA drone, not moving and monitoring everyone.” Yes, that’s a quote. And, of course, many of us have heard about the tired Air Canada pilot who sent his Boeing 767 into a nosedive toward the Atlantic Ocean after mistaking Venus for an aircraft on a collision course. I’m sure the passengers on that flight felt more than a little cursed.
Years ago, when I worked at the H.R. MacMillan Planetarium, in Vancouver, British Columbia, I’d regularly hear one of my colleagues proclaim, “It’s Venus!” through the closed door of his office. Part of his job was to take phone calls from the public. The Curse of Venus, as visited upon him, was having to repeat that phrase over and over. “It’s Venus!” Sometimes he’d say it before he even picked up the phone. I’m sure he said it in his sleep too. The Curse can make you a bit nutty.
It’s little wonder that Venus attracts so much attention. It’s brilliant—some seven times brighter than Jupiter, which is usually the next brightest planet. You can see Venus in broad daylight if you know where to look, and under the right circumstances, it even casts shadows at night. One night you look up, perhaps after an extended stretch of cloudy weather, and notice it for the first time—and there’s always a first time. Venus often puts on a show in the early evening, another reason it gets noticed. If it appeared only late at night, I doubt it would generate as much excitement.
The funny part about all this misidentification is that Venus is actually far more interesting than the things it gets mistaken for. Think about it. We’re able to look from the surface of Earth across a void of millions of kilometres at another world—and it’s the brightest point of light in the night sky. Venus is permanently enshrouded in a thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide, thus keeping its surface baking at a hellish 450 degrees C. Isn’t that more amazing than an NSA drone?
Still, as curses go, e-mails from curious-minded strangers are fairly easy to take. You never know—sighting Venus might be the spark that ignites a lifetime of wonder about the night sky. We all started somewhere, and marvelling at a “bright light in the sky” is as good a place as any.
Editor Gary Seronik invites your comments and astronomy-related observations and photos, which can be directed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.