Image: Venus and Pleiades
David A. Harvey
Astrophotographer David A. Harvey captured this view of sparkling Venus near the Pleiades star cluster in the skies above Tucson, Ariz., on Monday night. For more of Harvey's photos, check DavidAHarvey.com.
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updated 3/30/2012 2:23:25 PM ET 2012-03-30T18:23:25

After its spectacular tryst with Jupiter, Venus has been growing ever-brighter as the northern spring evenings warm up. The planet gleams like a sequined showgirl, hovering in the west-northwest sky high above the setting sun.  

On Tuesday night, Venus is shining near the well-known Pleiades star cluster in western skies.

Many astronomy books refer to Venus as Earth's "twin sister," since the two planets have nearly the same size and mass. In terms of diameter, Venus is about 300 miles (483 kilometers) smaller than Earth, and the gravity at its surface is 85 percent that of the Earth's surface. 

But that's where the similarities end.

The atmosphere of Venus is very thick and far greater in density than ours. Most of Venus' atmosphere is carbon dioxide, along with surface temperatures that are extremely hot; on the order of 860 degrees Fahrenheit (460 degrees Celsius). This high temperature is caused by the trapping of radiation by the lower atmosphere of the planet — a sort of runaway greenhouse effect.   

Earth's sister meets the Seven Sisters
While our "sister world" Venus has attracted a lot of attention from its recent displays with Jupiter and a lovely crescent moon, on Tuesday night it's having a rendezvous with another noteworthy celestial landmark, popularly known as the "Seven Sisters" or the Pleiades. 

There is nothing else like the Pleiades star cluster. Few observers can look very long at the night sky at this time of year without noticing the stars of the Pleiades and wondering what they really are.

The traditional Greek legend for the Seven Sisters is that they are the daughters of Atlas and Pleione. Their father, Atlas, rebelled against Zeus, the king of the gods, who retaliated by sentencing him to forever holding up the heavens on his shoulders.  This so grieved the sisters that Zeus placed them in the heavens so that they could be close to their father.

Peering at the Pleiades
Interestingly, widely separated and totally different cultures have always described the Pleiades as the Seven Sisters, the Seven Maidens or the Seven Little Girls. Yet, only six stars are readily visible to most observers.

Those with more acute eyesight may glimpse up to 12 under good conditions.

Why this cluster has been cited by more than one early people as having seven members remains a mystery. It's a bit more difficult to see seven, or 12, on Tuesday night, since brilliant Venus is overpowering the star cluster.

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At its closest, our sister planet passes just a half-degree (the apparent width of the moon) to the south of the Seven Sisters. The planet is 160 times brighter than the star cluster. The very best views can be had with binoculars or a small telescope, with Venus glowing like a steady white diamond below and to the left of cluster — a beautiful sight indeed!

In a telescope, Venus currently appears as a dazzling silver-white, almost "half moon" phase, but in the nights to come it will gradually become a thick crescent while growing larger as it swings around its orbit closer to Earth.  Watch as Venus changes its shape and size from week to week.

If you snap an amazing photo of Venus and the Pleiades, or any other skywatching target, and would like to share it for a possible story or image gallery, please contact Space.com managing editor Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com.

This report was updated by msnbc.com.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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