A Parade of Planets

I hope you saw Mars and the Moon get close last night.  It was even more spectacular if you were in mid-South America, north Africa, or southern Europe.  The Moon occulted Mars from those vantage points.  An occultation is basically an eclipse where a much larger or larger appearing body covers a smaller appearing body.  In this case, the Moon, which is much smaller but appears larger covered Mars for those lucky folks.  Not to worry, we will get to see an occultation later this month, only not of Mars.  More on that when it’s time.

This September is loaded with planets.  If you are game, you have the opportunity to see all of the planets this month.  The only caveat is you will need binoculars or a telescope to see Uranus, Neptune and possibly Mercury.  Mercury is usually naked eye visible.  Uranus can be seen with the naked eye from very dark sites, but our sky is not dark.

Mercury – is a challenge now due to its location so close to the western horizon at dusk but it might be naked eye visible.  Binoculars will bring it in.

Venus – is hard to miss.  Get up before sunrise.  Go out and look east.  Boom!  Gorgeous.

Earth – is underfoot.  Look around and be amazed.

Mars – is a late riser.  Stay up late, for some of us that’s past the weather and sports reports.  Mars will be in the east,  bright and orangish  above the horizon.  Mars and Earth are getting closer in their orbits, so Mars will look bigger and bigger as September progresses.  More on that later in the month.

Jupiter & Saturn – are a prime-time duo.  Jupiter and Saturn rise before sunset so are well placed in the sky after sunset.  Depending on the time, look in the southeast or south for them.  Jupiter is brighter, with a still bright Saturn trailing to the east.  In binoculars Jupiter might show some banding, and its four largest moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Castillo.  Check out Jupiter on consecutive nights and you will see the moons in varying positions as they orbit the great planet.  Saturn in binoculars is less exciting.  It is much farther and a bit smaller.  In most 7-10x binoculars Saturn looks like a bright, yellow, oblong star.  With higher magnification Saturn’s rings are visible.  I can see them in my 16x binoculars.  A telescope will bring those impressive rings into focus.

Uranus – is generally not naked eye visible from our area.  It is not as pretty as Neptune either, but that’s no reason not to take a look.  After Mars rises, look about 13 degrees east of Mars with binoculars and find the bright greenish-gray Uranus.

Neptune – is at opposition on September 11th and as good as it gets for us.  It’s in far southeastern Aquarius.  After dark scan the east-southeastern sky about 10-15 degrees above the horizon.  It’s blue, unlike any other star.