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11/11/2011

Astronomy: Star Light, Star Bright

11-11-11 Moon Venus Spica Jupiter A. Pasten A. Gomez and NOAOAURANSF
This photo is a good illustration of how much brighter planets can shine compared to stars. From top to bottom: the moon, Venus, Spica, and Jupiter. Credit: A. Pasten, A. Gomez, and NOAO/AURA/NSF

“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.”

This childhood saying is one I got a lot of use out of over the years. When I was a kid and it started to get dark outside, I would walk out on my driveway and look out over the strawberry patch across the street from my house and watch the pink of sunset drain away in the west. Often, I would see a bright point of light there, and it was only after several minutes that other stars would begin to appear from the darkening blue of the night sky. I would whisper the nursery rhyme and then silently make my wish. Thinking back now, I can’t think of a single thing I ever wished for. And I’m certain those wishes seemed of vital importance to me at the time.

Ironically, the first “star” you see in the night sky is often not a star at all but a planet. When planets such as Venus and Jupiter are up in the night sky, they shine more brightly than any stars. As a kid as I looked west into the sunset and caught a glimpse of a brilliant point of light, chances are that it was the planet Venus. Venus has been absent from the evening sky for months, but it is returning again and will make itself better known over the coming weeks.

For those looking east after sunset, the brightest and therefore first point of light that emerges into twilight in this section of sky is Jupiter. Jupiter climbs higher each hour of the night and shines brightly at magnitude -2.9. Venus is the brightest of all pointlike objects in the night sky at magnitude -3.9. The brightest actual star in the sky is Sirius at magnitude -1.1, which currently does not rise until almost midnight — definitely not the first star you’ll see at this time of year.

If Venus and Jupiter were not in the sky, a handful of other stars of similar brightness would all be vying for the title of brightest. Beginning the night overhead but eventually setting in the west-northwest is the Summer Triangle, whose brightest star, Vega, shines at magnitude 0.0. Another star at about magnitude 0.0 sets in the west-northwest before Vega: Arcturus in the constellation Bootes. The twinkling star in the northeast is Capella at magnitude 0.1. As Orion rises, two other bright stars come into view, reddish Betelgeuse at magnitude 0.5 and bluish Rigel at magnitude 0.2.

Because I can’t remember them, I’m not sure if any of those wishes I made as a kid came true. But I have always loved writing and astronomy, and now that is what I do for work every day. I also ended up marrying my childhood sweetheart. So maybe my wishes did come true. Perhaps I should go out and wish upon the brightest star tonight ....  

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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