The Wanderers Return Together

by Rod Kennedy

In ancient times the heavens were a place of mystery.  The planets were known as The Wanderers and were considered gods.  Even as late as the 1700’s the belief was that our solar system contained five planets besides Earth.  These five planets were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  Occasionally these “naked eye planets” are too close to the sun to be easily visible, but March 2012 offers us a chance to see all five during one night.

Mercury is by far the most elusive of the Five Classical Planets.  Its close orbit around the Sun means it is never far from the Sun’s glare.  This means that Mercury is visible in the evening sky for a little less than 2 weeks.  Then it is lost in the glare of the Sun for a little over a month before it reappears in the morning sky rising before dawn.  Mercury will be visible in the evening sky the first two weeks of March.  Look for a bright light about a fist width (held at arms length) above the horizon in the constellation Pisces.  Mercury may appear orange or deep yellow.

Higher in the sky is the planet Venus, also in the faint constellation of Pisces.  Venus will  be unmistakable since it is the brightest object in that part of the sky.  The planet Jupiter is a little higher in the sky (in Aries) and runs a close second in brightness.  However, Venus and Jupiter have more to offer than mere brightness.  Each night Venus will move closer and closer to Jupiter until the evening of March 12th when the two planets will be only three degrees apart.  This is close enough that observers with binoculars should be able to see both planets in the same field of view.  Observers with smaller telescopes (smaller than 6 inches in diameter) might also be able to see both in the same field of view, along with the 4 large moons of Jupiter.

As Jupiter and Venus sink in the West, the planet Mars is rising in the East.  Mars will appear as a bright orange light below and to the left of the star Regulus in Leo the Lion.  Like Venus and Jupiter, Mars will be unmistakable.  Telescopes will show Mars’s polar ice cap, and larger instruments may reveal some of Mars’s dark surface features.  On the other hand, if a dust storm is in progress Mars may show nothing but a blank orange disc.

Observers wishing to see Saturn will have to wait until almost 10:00 p.m.  Saturn is just five degrees to the left of the bright star Spica in Virgo the Maiden.  Careful observers with telescope may be able to spot Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.  Unlike the moons of Jupiter, Titan appears much further away from its planet.  Titan will look much the same color as Mars but with no surface details.  This is because Titan is shrouded in a thick, smoggy atmosphere of hydrocarbons such as methane and ethane.

It is a rare treat when all five naked eye planets are visible in the evening sky.  Granted they are not all visible in the sky at the same time, but they are all visible within a few hours of each other.  While a telescope can reveal hidden wonders on these far flung neighbors, even the unaided eye is enough to reveal these treasures of our solar system.

March 2012 Sky Chart

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