Planets on Parade

      A strange and unusual sight is happening in our skies at dusk. Normally there is always one or two planets visible in the night sky, but the early part of December brings a spectacular cluster of planets to be seen at dusk. Six planets take up residence in the night sky and 5 of them may be seen! It is unusual and wonderful and you won't seen anything like it again for a very, very long time.

      There are 9 planets in our solar system. Earth, the third planet, is 93 million miles from the Sun. Pluto, the most distant planet is 50 times farther away! Our solar neighborhood is a very large place, though tiny by galactic standards. All the planets are traveling in their orbit at different speeds. Earth takes 1 year to go around the Sun, Pluto takes 248 years. Seldom do the planets come so close together that we can see more than 1 or 2 in the night sky at a time.

      The beginning of December has Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter visible in the southeastern sky at dusk. Saturn is visible in the southeastern sky. Uranus and Neptune are very close to Venus but you need a telescope to see them. When we talk about the planets being "close together" we are referring to our line of sight from Earth. In reality, the planets are million of miles apart, but they appear close in our line of sight.

      The brightest of the planets is, without a doubt, Venus. It is impossible not to notice this brilliant beacon in the southwest sky at sunset. Venus is at its brightest for the year, and it is brighter than any star in our skies. Binoculars will show that Venus has phases like the moon, and over the month it moves from a thick crescent to a thin sliver.

      Mercury is hardest to spot because it is so close to the Sun,  never being farther than 23 degrees away. To see the innermost planet you will have to look carefully and within a half hour of sunset, any later and the little planet sinks below the horizon. Mercury is below and to the right of Venus.

     Mars is almost midway between Venus and Mercury. Mars is moving closer and closer to Venus. And by Christmas, they are only 1.1 degrees apart. Mars is fairly bright and easy to spot, but still quite dimmer than Venus.

     Jupiter is about 20 degrees away from Venus, towards the south and higher in the sky. There are no other bright stars in that area, so Jupiter is easy to spot. The Lord of the solar system has many moons around it and binoculars with show the 4 that Galileo Galilei discovered back in the 17th century.

     Saturn is the most distant planet in this cluster and to find it you must look in the southeastern sky after dusk. It is the brightest object in that area of the sky and will be up most of the night. Saturn is the planet with the beautiful rings and a small telescope will show them tilted about 10 degrees, a lovely sight.

     Take a look at these worlds while you can because you wont find them that close together for a long time. There is an alignment on May 4th 2000, which finds Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, along with the Sun in close alignment. But because the Sun is involved, we won't be able to actually see the planets like we can this December.

     Though many fanatics have forecast evil things wreaking havoc on the Earth when these alignment occur, I find it a great way to close out the year!

Copyright © 2001 Kathy A. Miles and Charles F. Peters II