So a crowd of us spend a Sunday afternoon making plans to “kuier” together at Sable Hide on Mid-Summer’s Night (21 December) even though our actual holiday plans for the rest of the time will be divergent. The wine has flowed and we are feeling mellow. We are in Pretoria and need to travel south to get home. Some of us are stopping in Johannesburg, the rest are heading deep south to Vereeniging.
I see a star, and point out that this is the Evening Star. After some confusion because one of the party was looking at a bright red light shining in the near distance (I did mention about the wine flowing?) and for some bizarre reason (ok, maybe he knows me well enough to know that anything is possible when it originates with me) thought I meant the light. One Mr Know-It-All who actually followed the direction of my eyes points out that it is not a star at all, but a planet. Of course, he is correct.
A star is actually a massive, burning ball of gas in the universe which produces its own light. What we call the “Sun” is actually a star. Most of the heavenly bodies we can see in the night skies are stars, although the moon and comets and meteors and other odd flying things sometimes confuse novices a bit. Venus is a not a star, but a planet, a large object made of either rock or gas that orbits a star. The planets reflect the light of the star, enabling us to see them.
Now I’ve read the beginner’s stargazing quiz on the SanParks forum so I ask how one tells the difference between a star and a planet in the night sky. The answer is simple. If you look at a star, it twinkles, and if you look at a planet it shines steadily. The other thing is that planets move visibly across the sky relative to other objects, but stars have more or less fixed positions relative to one another. In fact the word “planet” comes from the Greek word meaning “wanderer” because the early Greek astronomers noted that they wandered across the skies seasonally. The closer to the Sun that a planet is the faster it moves across the sky. Mercury, the planet nearest the Sun is named for the winged Roman god of travel because it appears to move so swiftly. Then, finally, if one looks at the planets, particularly the closer planets, like Venus, through a pair of binoculars one can see that planets have a roundish appearance while stars still remain twinkling points of light. Yes, the power of the binoculars determines how clearly one can see them and a telescope is needed for the outer planets.
Talking of twinkling stars, I have an admission to make. As a child I recognised the sound of twinkling stars. It was only later that I learned that the sound had nothing to do with the stars and was, in fact, the sound of crickets. (Maybe the guy who thought I was looking at a red light knew this story?)
Venus is the Roman name for the goddess of love. This planet was considered to be the brightest and most beautiful planet or star in the heavens.
The Morning Star is not really part of my consciousness. It happens too early for me most mornings. Well, I’m typing this at 05:11 but I’m indoors, not dressed and surveying the skies outside. Besides, it isn’t really a star at all. It’s also planet, the planet Venus to be exact.
Basically, as I understand it the orbit of Venus is inside the orbit of Earth. What happens when Venus is on one side of the sun it brightens into view just after the sun sets and it is then called the Evening Star. When it is on the other side Venus rises before the sun and it is then known as the Morning Star. Ancient Greek and Egyptian astronomers thought that Venus was actually two separate objects, a morning star and an evening star. The Greeks called the morning star Phosphoros, “the bringer of light”; and they called the evening star Hesperos, “the star of the evening”. A few hundred years later, the Hellenistic Greeks realized that Venus was actually a single object.
Christian Scriptures use “Morning Star” as a title for Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:19; Revelation 22:16).
We chat some more. Google Sky Maps are opened and squizzed at. I am definitely going to make use of that facility when I am next in a place with little or no light pollution.
I can’t wait for my next visit to the SanParks. Addo Elephant Park (July 2014 – Winter), KNP (December 2014 – Summer), KNP (April 2015 – Autumn). All these trips are going to be done while the moon is not full – New Moon for the December trip. Is it too early to start my trip report?