Enveloped in the Milky Way
Venus is at its brightest in the east before dawn this week, reaching its greatest illuminated extent on the 12th, when it occupies the greatest chunk of celestial real estate as viewed from Earth. After that, the planet pulls away from us, dimming a bit but by no means losing its clear title as the brightest object in the sky other than sun and moon.
As a comparison, the next-brightest object, Jupiter, is just a few degrees above Venus. The waning crescent moon joins the picture over the weekend. Saturday the moon is perched above Jupiter and Venus, forming a ragged line. Look a few degrees above the moon’s upper tip for the Pleiades cluster, which appear as six or seven stars in the shape of a small dipper. In the hour before sunrise Sunday, the moon, Jupiter and Venus are in a triangle all within five degrees of one another.
With the moon absent through the night, the summer Milky Way is at its best. You’ll need a dark vantage to appreciate it, but the reward is worth the hunt. Away from city lights, the Milky Way appears as a hazy band of clouds stretching from north to south across the heavens. It wasn’t until 1609 when Galileo looked at the Milky Way through his telescope that he discovered it to be a river of stars. Today, armed with even a modest pair of binoculars, you rival Galileo’s optic power. See for yourself.
While dark skies are a must to ride that river of stars, the Milky Way is our home galaxy, and it surrounds us day and night. Perched two-thirds of the way down one of its spiral arms, when we look to the star-dense heart of the summer Milky Way, between Sagittarius and Scorpius, we are looking to the heart of the galaxy. But the truth is, every light in the night sky is a fellow of the Milky Way galaxy. All, that is, but one. The Andromeda Galaxy, nestled in that constellation, is the only other galaxy visible to the unaided eye.