By Mike Lynch
There are five fellow planets in our solar system that we can see with the naked eye and in May we can see all of them except Mars.
The red planet is just coming out from behind the sun and is still lost in the glow of morning twilight.
Next spring Mars will be as close to Earth as it it’s ever been in the past few years.
The first planet to check out this month is Saturn: It’s nearly at its closest approach to Earth for 2013, about 825 million away.
That’s a long way off but its size (second only to Jupiter in girth)and its ring system make it an enticing telescope target, even for a small scope.
Let all the eyepieces sit outside for a good half-hour to acclimate and then take long continuous views to adjust to the light level coming into your scope.
You should be able to see the ring system and the actual planet with gap between. You may also see a few tiny starlike objects, some its brighter moons.
Look to the southeast for the brightest star you can see. That’ll be Arcturus. About halfway from Arcturus to the horizon will be two stars almost as bright as Arcturus arranged diagonally.
The star on the upper right is Spica and on the lower left is Saturn.
On Tuesday night the moon will be just to the upper right of Spica and on Wednesday night the moon will be parked just to the lower right of Saturn.
All the planets orbit the sun in more or less the same plane. That’s really apparent this week and next in the low west-northwest sky.
Jupiter is about to slip off the celestial stage, not to be seen again until late next fall as Earth is turning away from that part of space.
Jupiter is a tight conjunction with Venus and Mercury.
You’ll need to have a really clear view to the low west-northwest horizon with little or no treeline about 45 minutes after sunset. This planet trio will slip below the horizon by about 10 p.m.
Early this week the three planets will be lined up diagonally. Venus will be the brightest one and the first one to pop out.
Jupiter, second brightes, will be just to the upper left of Venus. Mercury, least brilliant, will be to the lower right of Venus barely above the horizon.
It’ll be fun to watch the alignment change from night to night. By the end of this week they’ll be arranged in a nearly perfect triangle.
Next week the triangular pattern will break up, but all three planets will still be a tight little group.
As you’re taking in this show, remember that these planets are really nowhere near each other physically. Mercury is the closest at about 106 million miles away from Earth.
Venus is more than 150 million miles distant, And Jupiter’s the farthest at well over 560 million miles.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.