Check it out any night: 5 of 9 planets are visible to the naked eye

These five planets — from the left: Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and Mercury — are all visible to the naked eye in our nighttime sky. Revelstoke Current photomontage — original images courtesy of NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratoy

Larry Pawlitsky

Spring always brings an extra boost of enthusiasm for astronomy on that first mild evening when the stars shine brightly and conditions bode well for a long season of sky watching. This month, 5 of our 9 planets can be seen with the naked eye.

If you go out at nightfall and look to the southeast, you will see the golden planet Saturn glowing about one third of the way up the sky. It passed opposition on March 21 when it was the closest to Earth for the year. By the end of April, Saturn is due south as darkness falls and shines at its highest around 11 p.m.  Saturn’s rings are a glorious sight in a telescope.

Mars, dimming into the distance as it recedes from Earth, shines high, almost overhead, in the southwest during evening. It appears as a reddish “star” in Cancer, left of Pollux and Castor and above Procyon.  With binoculars, watch Mars closing in on the Beehive Star Cluster, M44. In the middle of April, Mars passes just to the cluster’s north.

Venus is the brilliant white Evening Star blazing low in the western sky during twilight. Venus and Mercury follow the Sun below the horizon by the time the sky gets good and dark. Venus keeps improving as it moves higher in the sky until September when it will get lost in the Sun’s glare. Between April 23 – 26, Venus will be floating just to the left of the famous Pleiades or 7 Sisters star cluster.

Mercury is making its best evening appearance of the year now —and for the next few days. It can be seen shining low in the western sky at twilight. It’s the only star like object below and to the right of Venus. You have to look early though as Mercury, the phantom of the twilight doesn’t stay visible for long after sunset.

The sky’s King Jupiter is low in the east and buried in the glow of dawn.  Look for it just above the eastern horizon about 40 minutes before sunrise. In 2010, Jupiter will be at its best in September when it will have moved into the evening sky.

The night sky is awesome right now… and for the next week!  This is the ideal part of the month for stargazing.  From about Last Quarter to First Quarter, the Moon is pretty well out of the evening sky so the sky will be almost black – a perfect background for showing us the wonders above.

For the best observing, try to find a dark spot away from streetlights and house lights and allow your eyes a few minutes to get used to the dark.

Clear Skies!

Larry Pawlitsky is a very knowledgeable local amateur astronomer