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Sky Watch: Night show with the moon, Venus

Last week, I wrote about a faint group of stars known as Camelopardalis, the giraffe. I don't know how many of my readers took my challenge to get out and find this constellation, but I came back this week with something a bit easier to spot.

And believe me, there's nothing simpler to find than the moon and Venus. When these two celestial neighbors pair up in the early evening sky, as they will this coming week, they create one of my top-10 favorite sights in all the heavens.

I remember, as a child, racing home from school to watch "Superman" on TV as the comforting smells of my mom's cooking would waft through the house. It was such a thrill to see how this "visitor from another planet" would save our world each night.

But it was the ending credits that always gave me the greatest thrill. With proud and majestic music, they showed behind the words planets and moons, many in crescent phases. These looked so real, so mysterious and exciting, at a time when travel to other worlds was merely a dream.

After the show, I'd often throw on a coat and run out to the backyard to watch the stars come out. Sometimes, I'd be surprised by a thin crescent moon hanging beautifully above the colorful sunset to the west. It always appeared so delicate -- so exquisite and three-dimensional. And from time to time, when the brilliant planet Venus shone nearby . . . well, it was a delight I couldn't possibly describe in words.

Seeing this magical sight always made me feel that all was OK -- much like the ending credits after Superman saved the world. But this . . . this was the real thing!

This coming week, stargazers will get to see a similar show in the early evening sky. On Thursday, Jan. 26, the moon will appear just to the right of the brilliant planet Venus shortly after sunset -- a delicate crescent hovering over the southwestern horizon at dusk. Even now, sitting here at my computer typing these words, I get chills thinking of its stunning beauty.

As darkness begins to fall, look at the moon and you'll see not only a sunlit crescent but also the ghostly image of its full disk. Few things in the heavens appear more three-dimensional than this; if you want a stunning 3-D experience, check it out with binoculars or a small telescope.

Why the moon's "dark side" becomes visible at these times was first explained by the famous 15th century Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci.

He recognized that when the moon appears as a crescent in our sky, a hypothetical lunar astronomer would see in his sky a nearly full Earth. And just as a bright moon illuminates the dark night on Earth, a bright Earth would illuminate even more the darkness of the moon. Today we call this phenomenon Earthshine.

I hope you'll mark your calendars for the midweek sky show; I know I'll be out watching this lovely sight.

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