Mars and Saturn pop into view as soon as darkness falls in late August and throughout September 2014. Look for golden Saturn and ruddy Mars close together in the southwest sky, to the west of the bright ruddy star Antares. Both worlds will edge closer to Antares throughout the month, though Mars will be moving on the sky’s dome at a much faster pace. Mars will pass north of Antares on September 27. Meanwhile, slow-plodding Saturn won’t meet up with Antares until December 2015. Let the waxing crescent moon guide you to Saturn and Mars as darkness falls in early September, and then later in the month on September 27, September 28 and September 29.
Mercury, the innermost planet, transitioned into the evening sky on August 8, 2014, and will remain in the evening sky until mid-October 2014. However, this world doesn’t climb high enough from the glare of sunset to be easily visible at mid-northern and far-northern latitudes. On the other hand, residents in the Southern Hemisphere will see an exceedingly fine apparition of Mercury in the evening sky all this month. Mercury reaches its greatest evening elongation on September 21.
Venus and Jupiter, the sky’s brightest and second-brightest planets, respectively, presented the closest planet-planet conjunction of the year in the August morning sky. Since then, Venus has sunk downward toward the rising sun, while Jupiter has climbed upward away from the sunrise glare. In early September, Jupiter rises some 2.5 hours before the sun, while Venus rises about one hour before. By the month’s end, Jupiter comes up about 4.5 hours before sunrise whereas Venus comes up about one-half hour before. Venus will transition to the evening sky in October 2014. The waning crescent moon joins up with Jupiter on September 19 and September 20.
Special sky events coming up in September 2014:
Mars visible from evening dusk until mid-evening. Although the red planet Mars is getting dimmer as it lags behind us in its larger and slower orbit, Mars nonethess remains respectably bright throughout September 2014. This ruddy world still outshines Antares, the constellation Scorpius’ brightest star. Mars will pass to the north of Scorpius on September 27.
Mars recently passed to the south of Saturn in late August. In the great race of the planets, Mars will leave Saturn in the dust as the red planet travels onward toward Antares, the famous red supergiant star in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. Saturn, on the other hand, won’t meet up with Antares until December 2015.
At mid-northern latitudes, Mars sets about 3 hours after the sun all month long.
Saturn from evening dusk until mid-evening. This month, as seen from northerly latitudes, the ringed planet Saturn is found in the southwest at nightfall and early evening. This golden-colored world shines in front of the constellation Libra the Scales. Mars moved past Saturn in late August 2014, but the two worlds will stay relatively close to each other in early September.
Let the moon guide you to Mars and Saturn in late August and early September. Toward the end of the month, you can once again use the moon to locate these evening planets on September 27, September 28 and September 29.
Binoculars won’t reveal Saturn’s gorgeous rings, but a small telescope will. This month might be your final opportunity to view Saturn in evening sky, because Saturn will sit closer to the glare of sunset in October 2014. Saturn is highest for the night at nightfall and probably still a decent telescopic object at early evening. Saturn’s rings are inclined at about 22o from edge-on in September 2014, showing us their north face. Several years from now, in October 2017, the rings will open most widely, displaying a maximum inclination of 27o. As with so much in space (and on Earth), the appearance of Saturn’s rings from Earth is cyclical. In the year 2025, the rings will appear edge-on as seen from Earth. After that, we’ll begin to see the south side of Saturn’s rings, to increase to a maximum inclination of 27o by May 2032.
At mid-northern latitudes, Saturn sets about 3 hours after sunset in early September, and about 2 hours after sundown by the month’s end.
Mercury at dusk/nightfall, all month (at southerly latitudes). For the Southern Hemisphere, the evening apparition of Mercury starting in late August 2014 and continuing all the way until early October 2015 will be the best showing of Mercury in the evening sky for this year. Unfortunately for northerly latitudes, Mercury will be buried too deeply in the glare of evening twulight to be visible. Mercury, the solar system’s innermost planet, reaches its greatest eastern (evening) elongation from the setting sun on September 21.
Northerly latitudes … tough luck on this one!
Venus before sunrise throughout September. Venus beams in the eastern dawn sky throughout September 2014, though it quickly sinks into the glare of sunrise throughout the month. At mid-northern latitudes, the morning “star” rises somewhat more than one hour before the sun at the beginning of the month, but only about one-half hour before sunup by the month’s end. Venus will be very tough to see by late September, and will transition to the evening sky in October 2014.
You need a telescope to observe the phases of Venus. Whenever you see Venus in the morning sky, it is always moving away from Earth and its phase is continually waxing (getting broader). The phase of Venus will be hard to discern now, though, through a small telescope, because this world appears nearly full to us. This month, Venus’ disk starts out about 97% illuminated and ends the month over 99% illuminated. Believe it or not, Venus shines at or near its brightest in the morning (or evening) sky when its disk is about one-quarter lit up in sunshine. That’s because, at such times, the disk of Venus is always larger in our sky than when the planet appears full. Venus’ illuminated portion last covered the greatest square area of our sky on February 15, when its disk was 26% illuminated.
Nonetheless, Venus is always bright. It will remain the brightest starlike object in the morning sky until it fades into the sunrise in late September or early October 2014.
Jupiter in predawn/dawn sky all month Jupiter had a wonderful conjunction with Venus – the year’s closest of any two planets – on the morning of August 18. But Jupiter now shines well above Jupiter at dawn. In fact, Jupiter lords over the morning sky right now, rising well before dawn all through September. Look for the moon near Jupiter for several days, centered on September 20.
What do we mean by visible planet? By visible planet, we mean any solar system planet that is easily visible without an optical aid and that has been watched by our ancestors since time immemorial. In their outward order from the sun, the five visible planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets are visible in our sky because their disks reflect sunlight, and these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. They tend to be bright! You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.
Bottom line: The evening planets, Mars and Saturn, come out first thing at nightfall. From southerly latitudes, you can also view Mercury near the horizon at dusk/nightfall. The morning planets are Jupiter and Venus.