This week offers a rare chance to see all the planets in one night, providing you have a clear horizon, free of cloud.
All the planets are on view at different times of the night from dusk to dawn in the final days of November and first days of December.
Start at dusk, as soon as the sky begins to darken, to catch giant planet Jupiter low in the southwest. Jupiter is heading towards conjunction, when it will lie on the far side of the Sun, but you can still see it in the fading, evening twilight if you are quick, shining at magnitude -1.8.
Nearby, and a lot brighter, you will see Venus, the second planet from the Sun, shining at -3.9 magnitude. Again, you’ll need to look early as dusk falls to spot Venus before it sets.
A little higher in the sky, but not a lot, you find the ringed planet Saturn, shining at magnitude 0.6. If you’re living at mid-northern latitudes, you’ll need to look to Venus’ upper right to see Saturn. Of course, you will not see the famous rings with the unaided eye. You will need to observe with a telescope.
Jupiter, Venus and Saturn will all be easier to see for people watching from the southern hemisphere because the ecliptic – the general path along which the planets track – is currently at a steeper angle to the horizon from there, and so they will appear higher in the sky.
All three planets, incidentally, are currently in Sagittarius, and so are as far south in the sky as they can get.
Those who mourn the loss of Pluto as a planet, following its demotion by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, may like to know that it currently lies just a few degrees east of Saturn. However, you would need a powerful telescope to spot it, particularly so low in the sky.
The two outermost planets, ice giants Uranus and Neptune, can both be observed in a dark sky at the moment. The first of these, as we travel along the ecliptic, is Neptune, in the constellation of Aquarius. You will need binoculars at least to see Neptune, because it shines at a dim magnitude 7.9. See our special guide to help you to find Neptune for yourself.
Uranus, which is closer to us than Neptune, is the next planet along, in the constellation of Aries. It is currently the northernmost planet in the sky, and it is easier to find than Neptune, shining at magnitude 5.7, close to the theoretical limit of naked-eye visibility under pristine dark skies. Again a pair of binoculars will bring Uranus into view quite easily, providing you know just where to look. Our special guide will help you to find Uranus.
For our next planet, we have to wait several hours until Mars rises in the southeastern horizon, a few hours before the Sun. Mars is Earth’s outer neighbour in the Solar System, but is currently on the far side of its orbit, on the other side of the Sun, and so very distant from us. This means it shines at a relatively dim magnitude 1.7, rather than as a bright beacon when at its closest. You will see it this week resembling just a moderately bright star in the constellation of Virgo.
Finally, as the sky brightens with pre-dawn twilight, look out for the innermost planet, Mercury, in the southeast, several degrees to the lower left of Mars as viewed from the northern hemisphere. Mercury, in the constellation of Libra, is shining at magnitude -0.6 at the moment, comparable to the brightest stars, but will be dimmed by the effect of the deeper atmosphere at low altitudes. This is an effect known as extinction.
Mercury was at its greatest elongation from the Sun on November 28th, when it lay 20° from it, and it has now begun to close back in towards our home star, so you need to be swift to catch it. Binoculars will help you find Mercury, but you will need to look before the sky becomes too bright, and well before sunrise. Do not ever point them towards the Sun!
If you’ve managed to see all the planets in one night, then congratulations!
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