The gloriously bright planet Venus has been prominent in the southwestern, evening sky for months. Often called the “Evening Star” it certainly attracts attention unlike any actual star in the night sky, due to its magnitude.
Not a lot dimmer, however, is the wonderfully bright bluish star Sirius, the brightest of all the night time stars and easily seen on a winter night to the lower left of the Orion constellation.
Next to Venus this season is the planet Mars, a lot dimmer but still easily seen, at the moment to the upper left of Venus. Mars of course is distinctive in its red-orange hue; Venus is very white.
It’s interesting (at least to me) to think that Venus, the 2nd planet from the Sun appears to be not far from Mars, the 4th planet out. Where’s the 3rd planet? Look under your feet! Earth’s looping orbit slides between those of Venus and Mars.
On the magnitude scale, Venus is a dazzling -4.7 to -4.8. It is nearly at its maximum brightness (this happens on Feb. 17th when it will reach a stunning -5.5). In a small telescope, over the course of the next few weeks, you can watch as it gradually appears larger and its crescent shape thins.
It’s because Venus is closer to the Sun that Earth that it presents a crescent phase at times.
Venus will slowly sink in the sky, as it loops closer to “inferior conjunction” on March 25, when it is nearly between the Sun and the Earth. After that date, Venus is a morning planet.
Mars is magnitude +1.1, and currently appears as a very small, fuzzy disc in the telescope.
Astronomy’s magnitude scale is a funny thing. The brighter the star or planet (or whatever is in the sky), the lower the number. One would think, then, that ZERO “0” magnitude would equate to the brightest star in the sky.
Yet, Sirius is magnitude -1.58.
The dimmest star you can see with unaided eyes, in a dark, rural location with no Moon and eyes well-adapted to the night, is about +7. That, however, is very ideal, and more likely you will see only down to +6. With light pollution or on a hazy night you might see +5 or +4 and consider it pretty good.
The brightest stars of the Big Dipper are around +2, as out the three stars of Orion’s “Belt.”
Sirius is about 300 times brighter than a +6th magnitude star.
Each level of magnitude is 2.5 times as bright as the next faintest level.
The bright yellow star Capella, nearly overhead on early, mid-winter evenings, is +0.2 magnitude. The bright red-orange star Betelgeuse in Orion varies from +0.5 to +1.1.
There are four stars so bright they were given a negative (-) number.
Full Moon, which is on February 10 by the way, is about magnitude -12. The only star we can normally see in the daytime is the Sun. Our home star is -26.72.
Jupiter, our “Morning Star” for the past few months, is now rising around 11 p.m.; it is highest in the south as dawn nears. The 5th planet is currently - 2.2.
An hour before sunrise, look for Saturn low in the south-southeast, shining at +0.5 Due to the coming dawn it may be easier to use binoculars. To the right is the red star Antares, magnitude +1.0.
Keep looking up!

— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.