Planets are popping up everywhere. We’ve touched on Jupiter and Mars many times the past few months, but recently Saturn and now Mercury have entered the scene. Maybe you’ve noticed Saturn now in the southeastern sky at nightfall. From the northern U.S. and southern Canada, it’s bright but low at nightfall. Saturn reaches opposition a week from now when it will be at its closest and brightest for 2014. Each night that passes, the ringed rises higher and becomes better placed for viewing.
Mars, brilliant and fiery orange-red, now dominates the southern sky before midnight, standing above fainter Spica in the constellation Virgo. Only a month past opposition, we’re smack in the middle of the best time to observe the Red Planet through a telescope. I try to catch a look every clear or partly cloudy night but nearly missed the chance last night.
The sky suddenly cleared after almost a week of overcast. I figured I’d walk my dog first and then set up the telescope, but 15 minutes later, clouds reappeared in the west. I turned around and footed it back home as quickly as I could, catching just five minutes of Mars light before a blanket of clouds suffocated the starry sky. Yeah, it was worth it.
You might think it’s crazy to look at a planet night after night. Amateur astronomers do this for several reasons. First, most nights the air is too turbulent for a clear, sharp view. Looking often maximizes your chances of seeing the planet crisply in stable air. Almost nothing in observational astronomy beats viewing Mars or Jupiter or Saturn without air currents gooing things up. At these special times the dross falls away and the planet looks absolutely real. No exaggeration, you feel like you’re right there.
Planets also rotate. One hemisphere faces us one night, another on a different night or different time of night. Repeated observation gives you a certain familiarity with the “landscape” and alerts your eye to any changes happening. Remember, on most planets, weather plays a role in their appearance. Unexpected changes like a newly-spawned dust storm on Mars or the disappearance of a cloud belt on Jupiter lend an air of anticipation to the night’s viewing.
Let’s talk about Mercury a minute. Skywatchers blessed with a clear view down to the west-northwest horizon can find the little planet as soon as this evening. Face the sunset direction about 20 minutes after sunset and sweep a few degrees above the horizon with your eyes or a pair of binoculars. The planet now shines at magnitude -1.4 or nearly as bright as it can, an equal to Sirius, the brightest star.
If you don’t succeed, try again in a week on the 10th. After the late January show, the period from May 10-23 will be the best time this year to see the planet at dusk.