Is That a Star? The Moon? What is That Up There?
Our night viewers are often befuddled when they glance at the sky over Nkorho Pan. One of the brightest lights up there is mistakenly identified as a star or the moon. In fact it is Venus, a planet that for various reasons is gracing the skies of South Africa with a beautiful show of reflection.
There is a star very visible as well, its name is Sirius. With the brightness of a star confusing many star gazers, Venus is the 2nd planet from the sun. You thought plantets didn't shine like stars? True, they don't have the fiery make up of a star, but Venus has the right make up to shine. Its appearance is in fact 18 times brighter than Sirius, which we find hanging in the southeast sky. Venus is 75 times brighter than Capella, the star located almost directly over head when night takes over. In fact, Venus is so bright that it can be seen during the daylight if you know where to look. When the sun goes down we can find Venus at around 40 degrees above the southwest horizon, and follow it till it sets below the horizon close to 9 pm.
But why is it so bright? While many factors play into its bold shine, one of the reasons is the planet has a permanent veil of very reflective clouds. On average, the clouds reflect 65% of the sunlight that reaches the planet. Is that a lot you ask? As a comparison, Mars and the Moon reflect a mere 13-15%, and the earth about 35% of the sunlight. Venus is also quite large, almost as large as the earth. Its close proximity to the earth is another plus in its ability to shine in the night sky. Only Mars gets as close, but never gets as bright, being smaller and less reflective. That other bright shining spot of light we see at night, is the star called Sirius, and often appears to change color. The atmosphere of our earth, with its ever changing movements makes the stars light actually bounce around, each bounce being seen as various colors. All stars have this quality, but for us, Sirius is the closest and reveals a spectacular show of lights if you happen to have a telescope. Even the naked eye can catch the radiant effect at times. Thats our science lesson for the day, perhaps giving you a little insight to the beautiful night skies of South Africa. The skies will change as the seasons progress, but for now, enjoy the nighttime lights that Mother Nature has so carefully set above the horizon.