What is That Bright Star in the West After Sunset?

The last few weeks have brought some fantastic weather where I live. If you go outside in the evening after sunset you will see a very bright star shining through the twilight in the west. What is it? It turns out, it is the planet Venus. It is often mistaken for a UFO given it’s brightness. When Venus is at its brightest, as it is throughout April and into May 2020, the only natural objects to outshine it in the sky are the Sun and Moon.

The reason Venus is so bright is because of its atmosphere. Venus has a very thick atmosphere and reflects 70% of the light hitting it back into space for us to see. This is why it shines very brightly in the night sky. Venus orbits closer to the Sun than the Earth and this means that we always see Venus after sunset or before sun rise. The way to think of it is that it follows the Sun down at sunset or rises before the Sun at sunrise. When Venus is visible it tends to be the first star to appear in the evening sky and the last one to be visible before sunrise. This has earned it the nicknames “Evening Star” and “Morning Star”. During April 2020, Venus is about as far West from the Sun as it can get. This means that it stays in the sky much longer than usual and at the time of writing (15/04/2020) it doesn’t set until after midnight here in Ireland.

In these times of restrictions I would encourage you to step into the front or back garden (whichever faces west) in the evening time and spend some time enjoying the planet Venus. It really is a wonderful sight in the evening twilight. It will be visible in the west after sunset during April and May. If you miss this opportunity you won’t get it again until mid June when you will need to get up before sunrise to see it.

If you happen to have a small telescope to hand it is worth pointing it at Venus as you will see it appear as a beautiful crescent shape like the Moon. The crescent will get thinner and thinner as the month goes on. Please make sure you do not point the telescope west before the Sun has set to avoid eye damage.

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