You have to rise early to see these four planets

  • By Mike Lynch / Special to The Herald
  • Friday, April 7, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

It’s time for an astronomical challenge, and it’s waiting for you in the early morning sky. The initial challenge is to get you out of the sack early enough, say around 5:30 a.m.

Grab your coffee and binoculars and you may see four planets of the solar system – the two closest to sun and two of the farthest from our home star. In one shot you can see Mercury, Venus, Uranus and Neptune rising in the southeastern sky close together in a nearly straight line. Let the challenge begin.

We’ll start easy with Venus. It’s by far the easiest of the planetary group to see, and in fact is the brightest starlike object in the sky. Just look for that bright light in the low southeast predawn sky. At first you may think it’s an airliner coming in for a landing. Normally planets don’t twinkle, but Venus might, simply because it will be low in the sky and its light will have to cut through a lot of our turbulent atmosphere.

As with all these planets there really isn’t much more you can see with binoculars or a telescope. Venus is heavily shrouded with a thick, poisonous and highly reflective atmosphere and bounces a lot of sunlight our way. However, since Venus’s orbit around the sun lies inside the Earth’s orbit, and since Venus is at a right angle between us and the sun, all we see is a half Venus.

Now it gets harder. The next planet you should attempt to find is Mercury, the second brightest of the planetary gang of four. It’s not going to be easy, since it’ll be just barely above the horizon. A low, flat horizon offers the best chance to see it. Clench your fist at arm’s length and look just shy of two fist-widths to the lower left of Venus. It’ll be much fainter than Venus, but it is viewable.

Then the challenge really gets tough. Uranus is usually mission impossible to find, but you can use Venus as a bearing to help you. It’ll be about halfway between Venus and Mercury, or about one fist-width to the lower left of Venus. If it’s really dark where you are you may see it with the naked eye, but you’ll probably need binoculars. Since it’s close to the horizon it’ll probably have an orange hue to it, but you may see a little bit of its true greenish-blue hue.

Uranus wasn’t always the name of this planet. It used to be called George. Sir William Herschel was the English astronomer who discovered the seventh planet in 1781. He named the new planet after King George III. The name Herschel assigned it stuck around for a little while, but other astronomers eventually got together and gave it a traditional Greek mythology name, Uranus, the god of the heavens.

Finally, the ultimate challenge for you: Neptune, the eighth planet from the sun, presently more than 2.8 billion miles from Earth. Forget about seeing this with the naked eye. You may need a small telescope and a lot of luck to see this one. Neptune is just short of fist-width and half (at arm’s length) to the upper right of Venus. It’ll also have an orange predawn tint, but it may show a little bit of its bluish-green color.

There it is, your astronomical challenge. It’s not too often you’ll find four planets in such close proximity with a chance to find outer planets like Uranus and Neptune. But even if you just find Venus and Mercury that’s pretty good planet hunting. If you can go four for four, you’ve got a great set of eyes and lot of patience.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and author of the new book “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores and on his Web site,

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