by William J. Bechaver
Or more accurately, where in the sky are they?
Recently, we’ve been concerned primarily with the apparitions of Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets in the solar system.
But there are nearer planets to view. Though Jupiter and Saturn have been prominent in the night sky, Venus and Mars are nearer to Earth, and should be easier to view.
However, for the last couple of months, both the nearer planets have been obscured by the glare of the Sun as they have both swung around the far side of the Sun, and generally out of view for a time.
Both are on the far side of their orbits, right now, and therefore further away than the Sun. And since they are on the far side, they are further from Earth right now than they have been all year.
But all things considered, they remain much closer than Jupiter and Saturn, sharing the inner solar system with us.
This week, we have an opportunity to view both planets, though on the far side of the Sun, and appearing very close to our mother star.
On the early morning hours of this Saturday 26 October, Mars will rise about a half hour after the thin crescent Moon appears over the eastern horizon. Both will be above the horizon about an hour and a half before the Sun rises, so it will be an opportunity to view distant Mars with the Moon before the sky begins to lighten.
It will help to have a flat eastern horizon, and a pair of binoculars may aid in the search. Find the thin crescent Moon, then look down, lower in the sky, toward the horizon and the Sun, to find Mars. Both should be easily visible above the horizon by six o’clock, rising higher as the sky begins to brighten, and finally both Mars and the Moon will be mostly lost to the early morning glare.
Three days later, on the evening of Tuesday 29 October, go out just after sunset. Look for the thin crescent Moon once again, this time in the southwest.
The Sun will set just around six o’clock. Look up in the sky to find the thin crescent Moon, and then look below the Moon, to find Venus. Venus will be easier to spot than was Mars, because it is much nearer to the Earth, and always larger and more reflective than Mars.
Venus will set about an hour before the Sun, followed by the Moon, about a half an hour after that.
So, this week presents two unique opportunities to view the nearest planets to us. Mars, in the early morning hours, below the Moon. Mars will continue to descend toward the Sun week by week, and finally be totally lost in the glare.
Three nights later, Venus will appear near the Moon in the evening. Venus will continue to climb into the evening sky week by week, becoming a prominent jewel on crisp nights this winter.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.