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Looking Up: Leap night and the Evening Star

Peter Becker
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An ultraviolet image of Venus, taken by the NASA Hubble Space Telescope in January 1995.

Saturday, Feb. 29 is leap year day. It is also leap year night! We have another night to see the stars and planets.

The whole leap year day phenomenon is not someone’s idea for a national holiday or to boost business. It has no sacred significance I have ever heard of, and doesn’t side with Groundhog Day in relevance. It’s a way to manage the astronomical fact that the Earth does not orbit the sun in exactly 365 days! It orbits in approximately 365.25 days, meaning every four years we have to add a day to the calendar or else eventually Christmas would come in July and Independence Day in December.

My only question is, who came up with adding the day in wintertime - and why (that’s two questions)? Why not add a day to summer, which most of us wish would last longer? Of course Down Under, Feb. 29 falls smack dab in the lazy hazy days of summertime.

Have you noticed the really bright “star” in the southwestern evening sky? It’s impossible to miss. This is no star at all; this is planet Venus, second rock from the sun, shining brilliantly with glaring sunshine reflecting of its perpetually clouded atmosphere.

If we were Venusians, you can be sure there would be no column such as Looking Up, and in fact, no one would have any notion about astronomy. The sky is always cloudy. Never mind the searing +880 degree (Fahrenheit) temperatures on the surface, the toxic air and pressure that would squash you if you didn’t melt or burn up first. Having no stars in the sky to see, however, makes Venus totally inhospitable as well as uninhabitable, as far as I am concerned.

Spacecraft that have landed on Venus only last a few hours before they were destroyed.

That brilliant point of light in the sky has evoked wonder through the ages, and is often called either the Evening Star or the Morning Star, depending on which side of the Sun it is seen. It gets bright enough to cast a shadow if you are in a dark area, and can be seen in the daytime without optical aid, if you know just where to look.

Its dense atmosphere traps heat in a runaway version of the greenhouse effect. This is no greenhouse. As you can imagine, no plants would stand a chance there. In the 19th century, astronomers speculated whether there could be a hot, tropical environment on the surface where a jungle of flora and fauna existed.

The clouds are made of sulfuric acid, rather than water vapor. The surface air pressure is 90 times that of Earth.

Void of water, the planet is marred bye thousands of volcanos, some still active, and an abundance of flat plains. Lava has carved channels exceeding 3,000 miles. The volcanos range from a half-mile to about 150 miles wide. There are also great mountain ranges, one reaching seven miles in height and around 540 miles long.

Hurricane-force winds carry the upper layer of the clouds.

The planet is 7,520 miles wide, only 397 miles less than Earth.

The United States, Russia and Japan have all sent space probes to the planet, learning most of what we know from orbit. While the concentration has been on Mars - a much more genial place in comparison - researchers are discussing future Venus probes, including an airship to travel under the cloud deck.

For us in or backyards, a small telescope will show the phases of Venus. Because the planet orbits closer to the sun than we do, we see Venus change from close to full, to quarter phase and crescent. As the crescent Venus gets closer to the sun it is also closer to the Earth, and the thinning crescent looms so large than it can be detected in binoculars set on a tripod.

During March, Venus increases from magnitude -4.3 to -4.5. In a telescope, it appears about half-lit. On March 27-28, the crescent moon passes below Venus. Look to the upper left of Venus for the bright Pleiades star cluster. On April 3, Venus skirts in front of the Pleiades, which will be spectacular to see in binoculars and a great picture to take.

Much of this information came from Space.com.

Good news: the red star Betelgeuse, in Orion, is slowly brightening again, after reaching a historic low this winter.

Early morning: Take a look southeast about a half-hour before sunup. The planets Saturn Jupiter and Mars make a line, from left to right, slanting to the right.

First quarter moon occurs March 2.

Keep looking up at the sky!

Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.