BY AMY SAYLE
Those of you who come to our skywatching sessions know that although we always find interesting things to look at, the evening planet situation has been positively pathetic lately.
That’s because the planet action is currently best in the early morning sky -- you can see 5 planets at once. Read on for viewing tips:
Which 5 planets can I see?
From southwest to southeast, you can see Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and if you’re lucky, Mercury. For a bonus 6th planet, simply look down at Earth.
When should I look?
To maximize your chances of spotting Mercury, choose a clear morning between now and the end of the first week of February, and try looking about 45 minutes before sunrise. For everyone reading this in the Triangle area of North Carolina, that translates to going out around 6:30 a.m.
Where should I look?
To improve your chances of spotting elusive Mercury (as well as Venus, though it’ll be higher up), you need a view to the southeast that isn’t obstructed by trees, hills, or buildings.
Do I need any special equipment?
No, this is a naked-eye event. If you happen to have binoculars, they may help you find Mercury.
How do I tell the planets from the stars?
Jupiter and Venus will be the easiest to spot. They appear noticeably brighter than any star.
Also, look for the planets to (generally) appear to shine steadily, rather than twinkle. Because they lie relatively close to us, planets are essentially disks of light. But a faraway star is a mere pinpoint of light that’s easily disturbed passing through Earth’s atmosphere to your eyes; therefore, a star will twinkle.
Caveat: if you are looking at a planet near the horizon (such as Mercury and Venus), you’re looking through so much atmosphere that it’s possible that planet will appear to twinkle, too.
The 5 planets look as if they’re strung out along an arc. Is that unusual?
No. You will not see planets scattered just anywhere in the sky. They always appear to be near the ecliptic, the path the Sun appears to take through the other stars over the year as a result of Earth’s orbit.
You can also think of the ecliptic as the plane of Earth’s orbit projected onto the sky. Because the other planets in our solar system orbit the Sun in more or less that same plane, you can always expect to find planets near the ecliptic.
By the way, also near the ecliptic are two bright stars that may fool you into thinking they’re planets: Spica (between Jupiter and Mars) and reddish Antares (between Mars and Saturn).
Where’s the Moon?
The Moon has recently crashed the planet party and will be staying awhile. Watch morning after morning to see the Moon gradually appear to move eastward past the planets:
- January 27, 28 – Moon near Jupiter
- February 1 – Moon near Mars
- February 3 – Moon near Saturn
- February 6 – Moon near Venus and Mercury
How can I see these 5 planets at once without getting up so early?
Come to Morehead’s Carolina Skies show, which is currently on Sundays at the very reasonable hour of 3:30 p.m. No, it won’t be the real night sky (we’re good, but not THAT good). But it’ll be an excellent simulated version on the planetarium dome. Also, we can put up helpful red letters to indicate the cardinal directions. And we have planet labels. And a line indicating the ecliptic. And constellation pictures. And heat.
When can I see a planet in the real sky with expert assistance?
Join us for the next Morehead skywatching session at Jordan Lake. If the weather permits, we’ll be at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area from 7 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. You won’t see those other four planets, but Jupiter will rise by the end of the session.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech