The brilliant “Evening Star” is often mistaken for a UFO at this time of year.

 

By Jamie Carter
April 23, 2020
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One brilliant planet has been impossible to miss this year. Each night as the sun goes down in the west, a bright, shining “star” becomes visible directly above in the twilight sky. Often mistaken for a UFO when seen after sunset, the fiery second planet from the sun is known as the “Evening Star,” and this week, it reaches its peak brightness.

Catch it while you can before it dims and sinks from view over the next few months, finally disappearing from our evening sky in late May.

Why is Venus so bright this week?

Venus is always the third-brightest object in the sky behind the sun and the moon, and it's always brighter than the brightest stars. However, because it orbits relatively close to the sun, it’s only ever visible for a short time after sunset or before sunrise. It’s actually been visible after sunset since November, and it will sink behind the sun in June. In late March, it appeared to be as far from the sun as it ever gets — something astronomers call its greatest eastern elongation. At that point, it’s always half-lit, much like a young moon. Because it's closest to Earth just after that point, Venus appears to reach its peak brightness.

When will Venus be at its brightest?

Although April 28 is officially its brightest evening for years, you don’t have to look for it on that specific date — any day this week is fine. Venus is really easy to find after the sun has set. Just look generally west, where Venus will be visible about 40º above the horizon (around halfway between the horizon and the zenith above your head). That large separation from the sun means Venus keeps on shining brightly for many hours, finally setting after midnight.

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Why is Venus a crescent?

Venus has phases because it’s an inner planet — it orbits the sun inside Earth’s orbit, so we can only ever view it close to sunrise or sunset. Similar to lunar phases, the surface of Venus — as seen from Earth — is “full” only when it’s on the other side of the sun to Earth, and it is “new” (not lit at all) when it’s in front of the sun. As it moves from one extreme to the other, it gets progressively more or less illuminated. At the moment, it's 50 percent illuminated.

It’s not actually something you’re going to notice unless you have huge binoculars or a small telescope. Even though it’s only half-lit by the sun, Venus is so close and bright that it’s impossible to see its phases with the naked eye.

What does Venus have to do with UFOs?

In the last few months of 2020, Venus was close to the horizon just after dark. That will happen again in May and June, too, before it sinks from view. It’s surprisingly bright, and after a long period without it, the brilliancy of Venus can be shocking to some people. Since it's close to the horizon, it's also in the eye lines of people out walking after dark or driving home from work, so this is often a period when sightings of so-called UFOs increases.

Don’t mistake Venus for aliens, and instead enjoy the planet’s brilliance this week while it’s still a gem of the twilight sky.