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2.13.2012

A chance to see where we all really live


I’m going to step out of Grampy mode and play astronomer tonight to share something cool for anyone living in the northern hemisphere. We have an opportunity to 6 out of the total 8 planets every night this month (I’m speaking in a ‘post-Pluto’ world here) all without a telescope or binoculars.

3 planets at dusk
On any clear night this month, if you go out during the hour just after dusk and look to the west, you can’t miss a huge bright “star”. I mean really huge. So huge that many people mistake it for a UFO. That’s the planet Venus (our nearest neighbor), and just further up in the sky, almost as bright, is the planet Jupiter. You can’t miss either of these two beautiful planets. As a bonus, but a little bit trickier to spot, is Mercury. To see it as well (in the same view as Venus and Jupiter) you need to have an unobstructed western horizon and be there just after the sun goes down, because it will follow the sun quickly out of sight. Scan the west for a small star that is almost in a straight line down from Jupiter and Venus. That’s 3 planets in one open sky! (To see all 3 you need to wait another week for Mercury to make its appearance.)

To see Mars and Saturn, you need to be up before dawn. Enthusiasts set your alarms, insomniacs step out after 3 am, and early risers get out there before your coffee or the sun has a chance to dim your view. Look towards the southern horizon, but still fairly high in the sky. You won’t be able to miss a bright red object - Mars, our other closest planet. Let your eyes go down towards the horizon where you will see 2 stars side by side that are about the same brightness. The one further east (on your left) is the ringed planet Saturn!

2 more planets for the same price!
That’s our almost the entire solar system in one night. Amazing. Even for the not so hot on astronomy folks in the crowd, that’s gotta mean something. It’s like seeing 5 continents in one day, a phenomenon in its own right. I hope you get a chance to see them all.

Okay, I mentioned seeing 6 planets in one night. Can anyone name the sixth and tell where it is?