Rare display of the five planets after dark: when the curves align

December 23, 2022: See a rare display of the five bright planets – Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars – simultaneously after dark.

Photo caption – November 20, 2020: Before dawn, bright Venus is low east-southeast, 5.8° lower left of Spica. Mercury is low in the sky.

by Jeffrey L. Hunt

Chicago, Ill.: Dawn, 7:16 a.m. CST; Sunset, 4:24 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 planet’s center in the Southern Hemisphere: 7:46 UT, 17:42 UT; Dec 24, 3:38 TU. 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.

Here are today’s planet forecasts:

Morning sky

Chart Caption – In late December, The Big Dipper points the way to other stars when high in the sky. This morning helps identify Leo.

The morning sky is without a bright planet. Tomorrow morning at 4:17 am CST, the moon begins lunation 1237. Lunation is the number of lunar cycles since 1923.

Get out about an hour before sunrise and face southwest. Leo, with its bright star Regulus, is about halfway across the sky. The constellation is represented here each month when the moon passes in front of these stars.

The focus this morning is Ursa Major which is high in the northern sky. Note on the chart the overhead mark, sometimes called the zenith, the highest point in the sky.

When the dipper is high in the sky such as during late fall and early winter mornings, it helps us locate other stars. Its pointer stars at the end of the bowl point us towards Polaris, the North Star.

Polaris is close above the Earth’s North Pole. At the geographic North Pole, Polaris is almost up. As such, it doesn’t seem to move much during the night. To casual observation it is north. From mid-northern latitudes, it is about halfway up the sky. It is not the brightest star, but number 48 on the list of brightest stars visible in Earth’s skies. The star is not visible south of the Earth’s equator.

The curved handle points in the direction of Arcturus which is in the upper southeast.

Leo is in the opposite direction from Polaris. It can be found by going through the bottom of the ladle bowl.

While there are no planets in the morning sky until the end of January, several bright stars decorate the pre-dawn sky.

Evening sky

Chart Caption – 2022, December 23: Forty minutes after sunset, four of the five planets can be seen from southwest to south-southeast.

During the next five evenings, look for a rare display of the five bright planets, from the point of sunset: Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars. The next time five planets will be in the sky at once is mid-April or 2036.

First, find an open spot that has a clear southwest horizon. A hilly or elevated structure can help see Mercury and Venus near the horizon.

Second, get some binoculars. This is useful for finding Mercury and Venus, and possibly Saturn during the brightest twilight.

The viewing window is narrow and lasts no more than 30 minutes before Venus is too low to see. Start looking for Venus and Mercury near the southwest horizon about 30 minutes after sunset.

Right now, Venus is nearly 5° above the southwest horizon and to the right of the southwest direction. Venus is far enough from the sun to be seen without binoculars, but use them to find the planet initially.

Mercury is 4.6° to the upper left of the Evening Star and in the same binocular field when Venus is moved to the lower right of the view.

Try to find Jupiter about halfway up to the south-southeast and Mars to the east-northeast. At this level of twilight, Saturn is unlikely to be visible.

The clarity of the atmosphere is a factor. High cirrus clouds or local clouds can make this view a challenge. Sometimes Jupiter and Mars can be seen in this time frame.

Keep looking for planets during the next 25-30 minutes. Within 40 minutes after sunset, Venus is lowest in the sky with Mercury the same distance away as before.

Saturn is located about 30° overhead south-southwest, or about one-third of the way up from the horizon. It is the same distance from the upper left side of Mercury.

Graph Caption – 2022, December 23: Forty minutes after sunset, Mars is to the east-northeast near Aldebaran and Capella.

Jupiter is to the south-southeast – mid-height in the sky – and Mars is about 20° above the east-northeast horizon. Capella and Aldebaran are visible near Mars.

Look for the five planets along an arc from Venus to Mars. Don’t confuse Saturn with the star Fomalhaut which is lower in the sky and almost above the south direction.

Tomorrow night, the crescent moon joins Venus and Mercury in the southwest. Two nights later, the waxing moon is close to Saturn. This will help with identification. Meanwhile, Mercury is still close to Venus, but starting to fade in brightness.

Graph Caption – 2022, December 23: Saturn can be seen through binoculars near Nashira and Deneb Algedi.

Two hours after sunset, look at Saturn through binoculars to verify its eastward direction relative to Deneb Algedi and Nashira. The Ringed Wonder is 1.4° up to the right of Nashira. The planet passes in front of the star on the evening of the 27thth and 28th.

Jupiter (NASA photo)

At 21:38 CST, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is in its prime observing position on the planet, but from Chicago, the planet is only 20° above the west-southwest horizon, not an ideal point. Skywatchers with telescopes further west can see the planet higher in the sky and in clearer air.

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