Tuesday, July 13, 2010

LOOK FOR: Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Saturn

Tonight through Friday, there are a whopping four planets lined up in our evening sky. It seemed worth noting in a special Tuesday edition of "look for."

To find the four planets, you'll want to look as the sky starts getting truly dark, around 9:00 PM. Look for the crescent moon in the western sky. You should be able to see, from upper left to bottom right, Saturn, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, pretty much lined up in a diagonal line. To the naked eye, they'll look like bright stars. (Mercury is very small and close to the horizon, so you're pretty unlikely to see it...but three out of four ain't bad.)

mercury, venus, mars, and saturn with a crescent moon
OSTP simulation of the night sky using Stellarium

One option to get a better look is to use a pair of binoculars. Even then, don't be expecting wonders. You probably won't be able to see Saturn's rings clearly, for example, but you might be able to see a shape that's more ovoid than round because of the rings. And you should be able to tell that Mars has an orange-ish tint to it. It can be hard to hold the binoculars steady while looking up -- lean your elbows on something, or lie on your back, to stabilize yourself, and you should get a much better view. (This article has more tips on stargazing with binoculars.)

Of course, your best bet for a look at the planets is a telescope. But you don't have to go out and buy your own...the Office of Science and Technology Policy (with help from Hoftra U, the National Capital Astronomers, and the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club) is sponsoring an Astronomy Night on the National Mall, near the Washington Monument, on Thursday evening, from 6:00 to 11:00. That start time is way too early for stargazing, but they'll have filtered telescopes that you can use to look at the sun, which sounds pretty cool. The Marine Corps Band will also be playing that night on the mall, so you could make quite an event of it.

Any luck finding the planets? Any other tips from the professional and amateur astronomers lurking out there? Leave us a comment!