Despite the ongoing hunt for Planet Nine and the general dissatisfaction with Pluto’s demotion more than a decade ago, there are still just eight planets in our solar system. You’ve probably seen diagrams of the solar system that place the planets in nice, orderly lines, but the truth is they’re often on the other side of the sun from Earth. We happen to be going through a period during which all the planets are visible, many without a telescope. You just have to know where and when to look.
Mercury: The closest planet to the sun appears like a bright, yellowish star in the sky. Currently, you can spot Mercury unaided by a telescope for the remainder of this year in the early morning right before dawn in the eastern sky. It will be at its brightest for the next week or so.
Venus: Earth’s sister planet has been visible for about half of the year so far, and will continue to twinkle in the sky through the end of the year. Its proximity and size usually make it the brightest planet when viewed from Earth. While there have been times in 2020 when you could see it more clearly, you can still spot Venus if you’re up in the early morning. Just look to the west before dawn, and it should be the brightest object up there.
Earth: Look down.
Mars: You might have spotted Mars in the sky recently and not realized what it was. The planet has been passing very close to Earth lately, which is why NASA launched the Perseverance mission over the summer. Mars appears as an orange-yellow point of light in the eastern sky (see above) starting in the early evening and continuing until near dawn. It’s getting dimmer now (and approaching the constellation Pisces), but should still be visible to the naked eye through the end of the year.
Jupiter and Saturn: The largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter, is too far away to outshine the inner planets, but it’s still glowing like a silver star in the sky right now. We’re actually coming up on an event known as a great conjunction when Jupiter and Saturn are very near each other, something that happens every 20 years or so. Saturn is harder to see (it’s a yellow-ish point), but both planets will appear high in the southwestern sky at dusk, but they’ll fall below the horizon just a few hours later. The conjunction reaches its peak next month, so keep an eye out for that.
Uranus: We’re getting pretty far out in the solar system now, and many people won’t be able to see Uranus without a telescope. It’s there, though. It will appear in the evening sky between Mars (see above) and the dipper-shaped Pleiades star cluster.
Neptune: This is another tough-to-see planet, but it will be up there in the evening sky for the rest of the year and into early 2021. To find Neptune, look toward the south for the constellation Aquarius an hour or two after sunset. With binoculars or a telescope, Neptune should be visible as a faint, bluish dot inside the group of stars.
And that completes our tour of the solar system. While many consider Pluto to be an honorary planet, it and all other Kuiper Belt objects are too tiny and far away to be visible without powerful telescopes.
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