See five bright planets after dark – When the curves line up

December 22, 2022: Only in 2036 will five planets be visible at the same time. From the point of sunset, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars line up southwest to east-northeast.

Photo caption – 2022, June 24: four morning planets and the crescent moon.

by Jeffrey L. Hunt

Chicago, Ill.: Sunrise, 7:15 a.m. CST; Sunset, 4:23 PM CST. Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.

Daylight has reached the shortest time interval of the year, nine hours and eight minutes. The latest hour of sunrise (7:18am CST) begins on the 28thth and lasts until January 10thth.

Transit times of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, when it is at the center of the planet in the Southern Hemisphere: 1:59 UT, 11:55 UT, 21:50 UT. Convert the time to your time zone. In the US, subtract five hours for EST, six hours for CST, and so on. Use a telescope to see the dot. Times are from Sky and telescope magazine.

A rare sighting of the five bright planets occurs after dark during the following week. The dark planets Uranus and Neptune are also in the sky, but they are not seen as easily as the bright five worlds.

June 18, 2020: The crescent moon and bright Venus appear in the sky during twilight. The moon is 12° upper right of the morning star.

Planets look like stars to the naked eye. Venus is the brightest, followed by Jupiter and Mars. Mercury’s brightness varies greatly as it rapidly transitions from morning visibility to evening sky. It is the fourth brightest followed by Saturn. The Wonder of the Rings is brighter than most of the stars in the sky tonight, but it’s a challenge to see it during early twilight. Perhaps the worlds best night to see is the 26thth when the moon is close to Saturn, showing it the way. During the next clear evenings, look for them until the moon indicates the position of Saturn.

Five planets are no longer visible simultaneously until mid-April 2036. On those evenings, the order from the sunset point is Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and Saturn. They only extend 88° at their closest point.

The next time the planets are in their planetary order from the sun is in early May 2100. In the much-hyped 2040 display, Mercury sets just 13 minutes after the sun, followed by Venus about 25 minutes after sunset. This display is probably not visible to skywatchers in mid-northern latitudes.

Here are today’s planet forecasts:

Morning sky

Graphic Caption – Late December: Chapel, Castor, Pollux and Procyon are in the western sky before dawn.

The morning sky has no bright planets. The moon is close to the new moon phase and is not easily seen until it appears with Venus and Mercury on two nights. The moon begins its next lunar cycle tomorrow at 4:17am CST.

Meanwhile several bright stars are in the sky this morning. Looking west an hour before dawn, four bright stars form an umbrella-like arc above the horizon.

Capella, the brightest of the four, is located about 20° overhead W-NW. Castor and Pollux, above the west-northwest horizon, are taller than Capella. Procyon, slightly lower than Capella, lies to the west-southwest.

Capella is close to Mars and Aldebaran, but the planet and the brightest star in Taurus are below the western horizon at this time. Look for it tonight when the sky is dark enough to see the dimmer stars.

Evening sky

Chart Caption – 2022, December 22: Venus and Mercury lead the display of the five planets after sunset. Saturn is to the upper left of Mercury.

The five bright planets are visible in the sky after dark.

First, find a location that has a good view of the sky from southwest to east-northeast, especially toward the southwest. A hilltop or elevated structure provides a good view of any potential obstacles. Start searching about 30 minutes after sunset. At that moment Venus is nearly 5° above the southwest horizon. It is to the right or north of the southwest point. A compass, traditional or digital like on a smartphone, can help locate the direction of the planet. Venus is bright enough to be seen without optical assistance at this level of twilight. Initially use binoculars to find it. Then look for it without the assistance.

Mercury is located 5.0° to upper left of Venus and in the same binocular field of view with the Evening Star, when Venus is positioned toward the lower right edge of the field. Can you see Mercury without binoculars?

Photo caption – June 15, 2020: Venus appears very low to the east-northeast about 25 minutes before sunrise.

Mark Venus and Mercury with a distant tree or landmark. Finding a planet and then referencing its position relative to an Earth feature lets you find it minutes later. Plus, it helps you show others where to look for it. For example, “When you’re standing here, you can see Mercury about halfway up the right side of that pine tree that’s next to the water tower.”

Chart Caption – 2022, December 22: Saturn sits to the lower left of bright Jupiter in the southern sky.

At this time, look for Jupiter about halfway to the south-southeast and Mars about 20° above the east-northeast horizon.

The challenging one is Saturn. It is located about 30° upper left of Mercury and the same distance above the south-southwest horizon. It is less than half of Jupiter away from Mercury.

Graph Caption – 2022, December 22: Forty minutes after sunset, Mars is east-northeast. Aldebaran and Capella are nearby.

As the sky darkens over the next 10 minutes, keep looking for Venus and Mercury. They are lowest in the southwest. From time to time, look for Jupiter and Mars. Try to see Saturn before Venus sets or disappears behind a distant feature on the horizon.

Each evening, Venus is highest after sunset and the sighting window is longest.

Chart Caption – 2022, December 22: Two hours after sunset, Mars is in the east with Taurus.

Go out again about two hours after sunset and face east. Mars is nearly halfway up in the sky and 8.2° high to the left of Aldebaran.

Mars continues to retrograde until January 12thth. Pass Aldebaran in four evenings. When the planet returns to its eastward motion, it passes in front of the star again on January 30th.

Use binoculars to locate the Pleiades star cluster to the upper right of Mars. The blue stars resemble a miniature ladle. Through binoculars, a few dozen stars are visible. Then look for the Hyades cluster. With Aldebaran, the Hyades outline the head of the Bull.

With its horns – Elnath and Zeta Tauri – lowered, Taurus appears to be about to charge, but appears to move westward as the Earth rotates during the night, causing Taurus to rise back into the sky.

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