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Field & Street

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When I was 12 my know-it-all teenage brother took it upon himself to inform me that the evening "star" I'd been making wishes on for years was actually a planet. He claimed that due to this error on my part none of my past decade's wishes would come true. I pretended this piece of new knowledge didn't affect me one bit and continued chanting the lines "star light, star bright, first star I see tonight" just as I always had whenever the evening star came out. I told him the planet Venus was as capable of dispensing wishes as any distant sun and the fact that it was a planet was just another one of the ridiculous technicalities he was wasting his life on.

But the truth is, learning that the "first star" of each evening wasn't a star did matter. I felt cheated and disappointed. Wishing on Venus, earth's closest neighbor and the planet most like ours, seemed a little like pinning my hopes of glory and riches on a familiar, nearby relative instead of on a glamorous, faraway one. (I understood that my Aunt Garnet, quick as she was to help with loathsome home-ec projects, wasn't going to someday whisk me away from Posey County to Paris.) I preferred to have my destiny riding on a sizzling star whose name I didn't know rather than on an inert chunk of nearby dirt.

Venus doesn't seem likely to fulfill my dreams anymore, but it has gained the potential to inspire them because it's close by and obvious. It's one of the few celestial bodies that can be observed at all in the glare of Chicago's orange night sky.

Venus serves as the "evening star" seen in the west shortly after sunset. It's also the "morning star," the bright object that rises in the east before dawn. Occasionally Venus is out of view altogether, but when it's visible it's the brightest object, after the moon, in the night sky. In fact, it's so much more brilliant than everything else that Mayan astronomers gave it equal status with the sun and moon, instead of lumping it in with the rest of the planets and stars as we're inclined to do.

Venus closely resembles earth in many ways: both planets were constructed of the same material at the same time, and they're approximately equal in size. Despite this kinship and despite our proximity, nothing was known for certain about what was on the planet for most of the 20th century. We knew much more about distant Saturn and Jupiter because the planet named for the goddess of love is shrouded in a thick, soupy atmosphere. "The clouds of Venus are . . . as opaque as marshmallows," Galaxy magazine columnist Willie Ley complained in 1955. Yet the clouds are part of the reason Venus appears so bright: Only 20 percent of the sun's light reaches the planet's surface. The atmosphere bounces the rest of the rays back out into space, creating the shimmering apparition we see from earth.

In 1917 Svante Arrhenius suggested that the clouds must make Venus "dripping wet." In 1927 F.E. Ross concluded that the planet either was covered in swamps with ancient carboniferous forests or was a panthalassa, a shoreless ocean. Using Ross's scientific conjecture as a jumping-off point, novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs populated the swamps of Venus with advanced civilizations, complete with a gorgeous princess and an evil villain who pranced and prowled in the steamy Venus heat. The tale managed to capture America's imagination, influencing even its scientists, who found themselves reluctant to rule out the prospect of life on Venus. After all, until we could see under the clouds there was no hard evidence to the contrary.

By the time my brother, Mr. Authority, was born in 1956 the world's best scientists were in confused dispute about what the surface of Venus was like. Some believed in the swamp theory, but a more curmudgeonly set suggested the clouds were generated by lifeless, windswept deserts. Some, trying to account for the huge amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, theorized that the whole place was an oil field or that the panthalassa was made of seltzer water.

But by the time I was born, in 1961, Mariner 2 was on its way to Venus to settle the dispute. This unmanned probe traveled within 35,000 kilometers of Venus, close enough to peer under the clouds and give earthlings our first real peek at our next-door neighbor. What it had to tell us about the possibility of life was not encouraging. "[Venus is] appallingly hot," wrote Carl Sagan about the mission. "Because of the thick clouds, it is overcast and gloomy even in the daytime. The temperatures are so high that in some places the surface should glow with the deep ruby red of its own heat. . . . Venus is very much like hell."

Or as Henry Cooper put it in his 1994 book The Evening Star: Venus Observed: "If there ever had been a princess on Venus, she would have died instantly, and a medical examiner would have had a hard time deciding whether she had been fried, crushed, or suffocated, or all three in the searing, heavy, carbon-dioxide atmosphere."

Bummer. No swamp. No princess. And very little hope of finding a market for a new Mall of America.

In 1990 more data about the surface of Venus began returning from Magellan, a probe launched from the space shuttle. Magellan beamed back detailed images of the Venusian terrain, showing volcanoes rising up from lowland plains and hot lava flowing into valleys. The planet was covered with craters where meteors had crashed into it. Highlands covered much of the northern hemisphere. Below Maxwell, the tallest mountain on Venus, was a plain geologists called "tessera," which means "tile" in Latin, because it looked like a complex mosaic floor. This feature, common on Venus, is unknown on any other planet.

After reading Cooper's book and noticing in Sky & Telescope that Venus would be popping up as a morning star beginning in mid-November, I set my alarm for 5:15 one morning. Because Venus is between earth and the sun it goes through crescent phases just like the moon. Right now it's a crescent, and because it's also very close to earth astronomers were predicting spectacular viewing in November and December.

This sounded great when I was reading it on a sunny afternoon, but when the alarm beeped on a dark Saturday morning I wasn't too happy. I'd been up late the night before at a friend's Beaujolais tasting party. Maybe the sky would be overcast and I wouldn't have to leave my warm bed. But moonlight was pouring in the west-facing windows, so the sky had to be clear. Without turning on a light, I pulled on clothes, located a pair of binoculars, and climbed the stairs to the roof of my building.

From the tarred flat roof I had a clear view to the east. As soon as my head was through the trapdoor I spotted Venus. It hung glittering in the gray sky slightly to the right of the Hancock tower. Caught in the city skyline, it appeared human-made--a plane perhaps or an extra-high streetlight on Michigan Avenue.

I climbed the rest of the way onto the roof. The sky was clear, though still black with night. The Big Dipper hung directly overhead. The constellation Orion was setting in the west near the moon. I aimed my binoculars at the morning star. Magnified, it looked like a weird gleaming disk, more flying saucer than plane. Because I didn't have a telescope, the planet didn't appear crescent-shaped, but it clearly wasn't a sphere either. Even without its full face visible it was by far the brightest object in the eastern sky.

The atmosphere reflecting all that light from Venus is 97 percent carbon dioxide, the same gas that may cause a greenhouse effect on our own planet. If I'm granted a wish, I hope it's that earth never appears so radiantly white from outer space.

By six the sky had begun to lighten. The Big Dipper began fading into the bluing sky, and Orion vanished soon after. By 6:30 only the moon and Venus were left. Finally the orange sunrise drowned out Venus, leaving it to swelter invisibly under its own gloomy skies.

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