Now that the clouds of winter have gone and spring is upon us, this is the time to take a tour of the night sky. Not since the spring of 2004 have we enjoyed such a fine array of planets across the evening sky as we have now! This month, all five naked eye planets appear in our sky with four of them at their best for 2012.
The whole world can see the two bright lights near each other in the west after sunset now. These sparkling beacons are the two brightest planets – Venus and Jupiter. Venus is the brighter light and is often mistaken for an airplane or an UFO. On March 27, Venus will reach its maximum angle away from the Sun and on April 30 it will attain its maximum brilliance. Throughout March and April, Venus will be shining so high in the west that it doesn’t set until 11 pm or so! No matter where you are on Earth now, you can’t miss these two worlds in the west as darkness falls.
On March 15, the great Venus and Jupiter conjunction of 2012 took place. For a couple of days, Jupiter and Venus were only three degrees apart and appeared as a bright duo in the western sky. Now they are moving apart – but are still fairly close to each other. Venus will hang around in the evening sky for another two months. But Jupiter is starting to drop fast and will be out of sight by mid April.
In the opposite direction at nightfall – looking east – you can’t miss the ruddy planet Mars. It shines from dusk till dawn as it moves across the sky. This planet won’t be so brilliant again until April 2014.
We’ll have to wait a little later in the evening for the fifth planet in the Parade to show up – Saturn. At present, Saturn is rising in the east around midnight but by April 15, it will be opposite the Sun in our sky and will rise as the Sun sets – around 8 pm local time. Late April and all through May and June are the prime time for seeing Saturn at its best.
The first naked eye planet, Mercury, was visible in the western sky during the first half of March. On March 5, it reached its highest point above the horizon and its best appearance! You might still be able to see it close to the western horizon during twilight glow. There are no other bright stars in the area so if you see a bright object just above the horizon it will be Mercury.
If you go out before it gets dark and the stars start to pop into view, Mars in the east and Jupiter and Venus in the west will really stand out and you can’t miss them.
Some days to circle on your calendar:
March 25 – A waxing crescent Moon will be just above Jupiter in the western evening sky;
March 26 – The waxing Crescent Moon will be just below Venus and just a little lower than the Pleiades Star Cluster; and
April 3 – Venus will be right beside the Pleiades.
Larry Pawlitsky is a local amateur astronomer