You may have heard the news: “Five planets will align! Don’t miss it!” A planetary line-up this coming week sounds fascinating. But despite much media hype, the real story, the “inside word,” is: sleep through this one. Or, better yet, pull up a chair and hear two tips that will break this celestial event into two worthwhile segments. Ready?
As I mention in my March Sky Watch, forget the idea that the planets will form some kind of line in the sky, or that all the planets will be simultaneously involved. Yes, the planets do form lines like strings of pearls every few years so people get primed for such events. But there’s no line-up this March. No string of pearls. Look for yourself.
However, if we focus on the best stuff, here’s what’s going to happen on March 27 and March 28. Start by looking toward the west where the Sun set, at around 7:40 P.M—the optimum time to be looking.
- The Moon and Mars: Let’s start with the Moon, an easy marker. As the sun sets, the waxing crescent moon is high in the western sky. But now look below the Moon to the only bright star that’s there, and you’ll see that it’s clearly orange. This is Mars, only a palm’s width away!
- On Monday, March 27, Mars hovers just to the upper left of the Moon.
- On Tuesday, March 28, Mars floats to the right of the half-Moon. If you have a telescope, it so happens that the sunlight hitting its surface is perfectly angled tonight (and the next two nights) to see optimum detail on craters and lunar mountains. Any old telescope will work for this job, and you’ll be amazed.
- Dazzling Venus: Now look much lower, about half-way down to the western horizon and you simply can’t miss the dazzling brilliance of the sole ultra-bright “star” in that same western direction. This is Venus, also known as the Evening Star, and it’s always worth admiring, all by itself.
How about the other planets?
- Uranus: If you do have binoculars, sweep them to the upper left of Venus. If twilight is still too bright, you might have to wait another half hour to do this. And there you’ll see a faint pale-green star. This is the planet Uranus. Catching that planet is an accomplishment because it’s over a thousand times less bright than Venus! But the key adjective is the word “green.” No star is green. So if those binoculars or a small telescope really let you glimpse a pale greenish color, you can be confident you’ve found the seventh planet from the Sun, whose discovery astounded the world in 1781. Again, Uranus is very difficult to see. It won’t be part of any visible line-up in the night sky.
- Mercury and Jupiter: Seeing super-low Mercury and Jupiter is highly doubtful. But if you have an oceanically clear, unobstructed view, two somewhat bright (but not super-bright planets) will be very, very low near the horizon. Five degrees high, or about the width of two fingers above the horizon. Since thick horizon air always dims things, these will be hard to see. But if you’re overlooking the ocean or a large lake so you can see all the way down into the still-bright glow of twilight, and especially if you sweep the region with binoculars, you may be able to see them both. The one on the top is the planet Mercury. The brighter one below it is Jupiter. In any case, it will now be obvious that no kind of line-up is occurring. The planets are there in the west and southwest, but they’re hit-or-miss, and here-and-there. And by the way, what happened to Saturn?
- Saturn: Ah, for the ringed planet you have to go to sleep. And set your alarm for six the next morning. And then look super-duper-low in the east, the direction where the Sun will soon rise. And try to ignore the bright twilight. And there, just 5 degrees high—again, just two finger widths above the horizon—is a brightish but not super-bright “star.” Again, binoculars may help find it. If you do, you can say you saw another planet to the person still asleep next to you.
That’s the story. No line-up. No string of pearls. No bunch of planets altogether, or even any chance of seeing them all at the same time. Not even a state of affairs where finding them all is likely. But, just to be thorough, this is a two-day situation where it’s technically possible to observe six planets.
Worthy of the hype? You decide.
I always highlight what’s easy to see with the naked eye in the night sky. If you’re a sky watcher, see the highlights for next month in my April Sky Watch.