"What's with those two stars in the sky tonight?"

We often get these kinds of calls on warm, clear nights, but also in clear winter months as well. Do you know the answer?

It's not an unusual question.

It comes up every time we have a clear and normally warm or extremely cold evening in the Parkersburg area.

Two bright "stars" grip the imagination, and people claim they are moving, flying, twinkling, following them, or gave off some strange effects...sparkling, hissing, strobing, or shimmering.

So what are these two stars?  Not stars at all.  They're planets...and two of the most visible of all. 

Both Venus and Jupiter are in the southwest skies after sunset, and Venus (the one nearer the sunset, is getting brighter all the time.

Of course, only Venus and Mercury are the only planets who actually go through phases, like the moon... because they are closer in towards the sun than the Earth is.  All the outer planets, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are  positioned so that they may only reflect light back inward toward the earth, and so never go through phases cause we never get a chance to see their "backside" or dark side, even in a sliver.

The point was driven home this last weekend, when the Vienna Public Library presented the "final planetarium show".  The presenter who has frequently entertained kids and families, has married and is moving to England.  That leaves the portable planetarium without an operator. *

(*Maybe I spoke too soon. I've just learned that the presentations may continue.)

But as much fun as a planetarium is, you can still demonstrate why the moon, Venus and Mercury go through phases....all it takes is a bright table lamp in the middle of the room, and a white soccer ball representing the moon.  If you hang onto the soccer ball at arms length, and slowly turn in a circle, you will see that the lit face of the ball shifts. It becomes a crescent, vanishes and then grows again until a full moon is seen.  (Most of us might overlook this unless the room is very dark except for the lamp in the center of our model "solar system".)

It's how I taught my kids about the phase of the moon.  And they got it the first time I showed them.

It's all part of the wonder of teaching kids about the concept of outer space and the planets. And the best example is in the southwestern sky all this spring.  Don't miss it!

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