This holiday season skywatchers get to witness five planets hanging like ornaments in the skies above.
All throughout the end of the month you can catch the five classical naked-eye planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – all of which were first seen by astronomers in ancient Greek and Roman times. First up just after your local sunset, you’ll find the king of all planet, Jupiter, continue to dominate the high southern sky starting at nightfall. It has been the brightest star-like object visible even from urban locations since summer, so it shouldn’t be hard to spot at all.
Then look to its lower right, just above the southwest horizon after sunset is Venus. You can’t miss it either since it looks like super-bright white star as well. It’s interesting to note that while Venus shines so bright in our skies in large measure because of its relative proximity to our planet – located less than 200 million km now. Jupiter at 600 million km away, however owes it’s brilliance mostly due to its gargantuan size – more than 11 times larger than Earth. If you have binoculars and can hold them steady enough you can actually spot Jupiter’s two main cloud belts that straddle the the equator. Even easier to glimpse are its four main moons – first seen by Galileo in 1609 through his telescope.
On December 26 and 27 look for a razor thin crescent moon to join the goddess of love- making for a striking celestial pair after sundown.
For early bird skywatchers, three more planets are visible at dawn in the southeast all lined up in a diagonal line up towards the right. Faint, little Mercury is closest to the horizon and is usually the most challenging to spot with the unaided eye. Making it easier now however is that its joined to its immediate right by the bright orange star Antares. Located 600 light years away this red giant represents the eye of Scorpius, the constellation. If you are having problems identifying Mercury then try using binoculars to sweep the area next to Antares.
Look to the upper right of this stellar pair for another bright white star named Spica – the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Just to the left of this 260 light year distant blue giant is the creamy colored, ringed world Saturn. The 1.5 billion km distant planet is quite bright in the sky, but if you happened to get a telescope under the tree this year then you have to point it at Saturn and check out its famous rings. It really is one of the must-see celestial sights in the cosmos!
Finally if you scan to the upper left of Saturn you will see the final planet in our holiday solar system tour – orange hued Mars. Amazing to think that the Red Planet’s color you see it shining by in the sky is imparted on it by sunlight reflecting off of the iron-oxide rich dust and sand that covers the planet.
Remember these five worlds will be on display for a number of weeks so take your time to hunt them down – and if you have newly acquired binoculars and telescopes, then these sky targets will certainly make for great views. What a cosmic way to end the year!
Extra: The sungrazing comet Lovejoy has been making quite a splash down under since it survived its close encounter with our Sun, putting on a beautiful sky show for the entire southern hemisphere. The icy visitor has grown a spectacularly long, wispy tail that stretches through the constellation Scorpius up into the the dawn skies. Check out the finders chart and some sample photos backyard skywatchers are taking – many just using off the shelf cameras with under 1 minute exposures.
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.