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See four evening planets: Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn

BY AMY SAYLE

Have you seen the four planets that currently decorate the evening sky? From west to east, they are Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn.*

The easiest of the four to spot is Venus – because it is so, so bright. Look in the western sky soon after sunset. You can easily pick it out in the twilight, before you notice stars becoming visible and well before the sky becomes completely dark.

The second easiest to find is Jupiter. The king of the planets lies in the southwest at nightfall, and higher in the sky than Venus. Although Jupiter is not as bright as Venus, it’s still brighter than any star in the night sky.

Next, look for Saturn. Currently, it’s rising in the east-southeast around nightfall.

The most difficult of the four planets to see will be Mercury. Look for Mercury below Venus, and low in the west-northwest soon after sunset.

Stellarium image for Chapel Hill’s evening twilight sky on May 11, 2015

Photo: Where’s Mercury? Trees to your west can hide it. (Stellarium image for Chapel Hill’s evening twilight sky on May 11, 2015)

Do trees block your view to the west? Then you’ll want to look for Mercury sooner after sunset, when the planet is higher above the horizon. But if your vision is less than sharp, you may have difficulty picking it out of the twilight.

If you wait until a little later after sunset, when the sky is darker, you may discover that Earth’s rotation has made Mercury slip behind a tree or building. And don’t wait too many more evenings to try to find this elusive planet. As the month goes on, Mercury fades in brightness and falls closer to the horizon in twilight.

One place you can find a tree-free view of the western horizon is over Jordan Lake, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. If the weather permits, please join us there for Morehead’s next monthly skywatching session, on Saturday, May 16, 2015, from 9 to 11 p.m.

Even with that unobstructed western view, it’ll be tricky by then to see Mercury. The planet will have been fading in brightness and will be low in the west-northwest at the beginning of the session. Soon after, it will sink completely out of view.

The skywatching session will also feature much-easier-to-see Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn (don’t miss seeing Saturn’s rings!), as well as other celestial treasures.

*Where’s Mars, you ask? From Earth’s point of view, Mars is lost in the glare of the Sun until September 2015.