5 for 5
Of the other eight (or seven) planets in our solar system, five are visible to the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This month ALL five are visible in the evening sky, though not quite all at once.
Shortly after sunset (45-90 minutes) Mercury is visible on the western horizon, just above or in the sun’s afterglow. It sets fairly soon thereafter.
Higher in the western sky are Venus and Jupiter. They are up all evening, eventually setting after midnight. As a matter of fact, they are in extremely close conjunction, with the closest approach being tonight, Thursday, March 15. They are about 2-3 moon diameters apart and the brightest objects in the night sky hands down. Venus is the larger, brighter one on the right and Jupiter on the left. During the close conjunction they should be on a nearly horizontal line with each other.
In the eastern sky is Mars, which passes closest to Earth once every two years. This conjunction occurred on March 7, so it’s still pretty close and obvious. It is nestled underneath and between the fore and hind legs of the constellation Leo. If Mars is the center of a clock, then Regulus, the front paw of Leo is at one o’clock. Leo’s mane is at twelve o’clock, with the triangle forming the hindquarters and tail occurring between seven and nine o’clock.
Another bonus is the brightest star in the sky, Sirius. It is in the southern sky. To find it, locate Orion’s belt and draw a line to the left and the brightest thing you see is Sirius. Incidentally, other than the Sun and Moon, the four brightest objects in the night sky, in order, are Venus, Jupiter, Sirius, and Mars.
Rounding out our spectacular evening, between 10 and 11 pm, Saturn rises in the east. You can recognize it because there is another bright star about 3-4 moon diameters from it at about two o’clock. This star is Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. You may need to wait a bit for it to rise above any city glare, depending on where you live.
Fortunately, this week, the moon does not make an appearance during these evening hours to brighten the sky, so more stars are visible and the planets easier to see. As a reminder, planets don’t twinkle the way stars do, so that’s a good way to distinguish them if you are having trouble picking things out. That’s how a neighbor and I identified Saturn versus Spica tonight before seeing a diagram online that confirmed our assignment.
Here are some websites with more info:
http://earthsky.org/tonight (and links on page to other information on Mars, Saturn, and upcoming astronomical events calendar)
The heavens do declare His glory.