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Shining Venus could make rare pillars and dogs

Venus and the crescent moon appeared near one another this week.
Venus and the crescent moon appeared near one another this week.  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- Look west during the evening this month and you will see the brightest "star" become even brighter.

Venus will burn brighter each night in the coming weeks, making September a good opportunity to spot extremely rare astronomical treats: planetary pillars or dogs.

The sun and occasionally the moon are known to produce pillars and dogs, optical illusions formed in the atmosphere when either object is near the horizon.

Sunlight reflecting in the ice crystals of cirrus clouds, for example, can create glittering vertical shafts of light above or below the sun, known as sun pillars.

The same high-altitude ice crystals can produce sun dogs, or bright spots to the left and right of the low-lying sun and at about the same altitude.

Similar atmospheric conditions can make moon pillars and dogs, but Venus versions of the light tricks remain elusive.

Carol Lakomiak of Tomahawk, Wisconsin, captured perhaps the first Venus pillar on camera in April.

"Venus looked very strange," she told the Science@NASA Web site. "I saw beams of light jutting from the top and bottom of the planet, and there were moments when they were visible without optical aid."

If the evening star boasts pillars, astronomers speculate it has dogs as well, even though no one has yet reported seeing them.

Les Cowley, a retired physicist, suggests that venusian pillar and dog hunters search the night sky when cirrus clouds are near the horizon or when sun pillars or dogs were seen earlier in the evening.

The ideal time to look is between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m., when Venus approaches the horizon and the sky is dark.

Venus also starred in a more dependable celestial show this week. The planet teamed up with the crescent moon Monday evening. The two appeared quite close together, low in the western sky near the constellation Virgo.




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