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August 2016 guide to the 5 bright planets

Coming up, the conjunction of Mars and Saturn on August 24, and the conjunction Venus and Jupiter on August 27.

Skywatcher, by Predrag Agatonovic.

Skywatcher, by Predrag Agatonovic.

All five bright planets were visible in the early evening, in early August. You might still catch all five if you look soon after sunset. Mercury and Venus follow the sun below the horizon before nightfall at northerly latitudes. They stay out longer as seen from Southern Hemisphere. Jupiter, the second-brightest planet after Venus, is still easy to spot in the west after sunset and will stage a magnificent conjunction with Venus on August 27. Mars is still a bright beacon, although fainter than Jupiter, still in a noticeable triangle with Saturn and the bright star Antares. Mars and Saturn are out until very late evening at mid-northern latitudes (or after midnight as seen from the Southern Hemisphere). Follow the links below to learn more about August planets in 2016.

Brilliant Venus sets soon after sunset

Fainter Mercury near Venus after sunset

Jupiter low in west after sunset

Mars, dusk until late night, shines near Saturn

Saturn, dusk until late night, shines near Mars

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In late July and early August 2016, look from the sunset direction eastward to catch all 5 bright planets after sunset. Green line depicts the ecliptic, or sun's path across the sky. Look for the planets along the sun's path.

In late July and early August 2016, look from the sunset direction eastward to catch all 5 bright planets after sunset. Green line depicts the ecliptic, or sun’s path across the sky. Look for the planets along the sun’s path. Read more.

Will you see the moon and Venus on August 3? Maybe. Then watch the moon appear higher in the west after sunset each evening, near Jupiter and Mercury.

Will you see the moon and Venus on August 3? Maybe. Then watch the moon appear higher in the west after sunset each evening, near Jupiter and Mercury.

Brilliant Venus sets soon after sunset . People have been reporting fleeting sightings of the brightest planet, Venus, in the west after sunset. If you see it, it’ll be low in the sunset glare, but surprisingly bright for being so low in the sky. Everyone on Earth has a shot at seeing it, but it’s easier from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere.

Watch for Venus below the moon and Mercury on August 4. Binoculars will enhance the view!

Jupiter and Mercury come closest together for the month on August 19, and then Venus and Jupiter stage a stunningly close conjunction on August 27.

Venus will become easier to see in the western evening sky in September, and even more so in October.

By the way, when Venus passed behind the sun in June, it passed directly behind it, as seen from Earth. That happened on June 6, 2016, and at that time Venus officially transitioned from our morning to our evening sky. Exactly four years previous to Venus’ passing directly behind the sun on June 6, 2016, Venus swung directly in front of the sun on June 6, 2012. You might remember that event: the widely watched transit of Venus, during which Venus crossed the sun’s face as seen from Earth (see photos). It was the last transit of Venus until December 11, 2117.

Venus and Mercury - and the star Regulus - are deep in evening twilight. This is Venus, caught from a plane over southern Oregon, on July 28, 2016. Photo by Gemini Brett.

Here’s Venus, caught from a plane over southern Oregon, on July 28, 2016. Notice the bright twilight background. Photo by Gemini Brett.

Fainter Mercury near Venus after sunset. Mercury shines as an evening “star” all month long, but – if you live at mid-northern latitudes or farther north – you might need binoculars to glimpse this little world near Venus in August 2016.

On the other hand, you might be able to catch Mercury with the eye alone. The only way to know is to look.

From the Southern Hemisphere or northern tropics, Mercury is presenting its best evening apparition for the year, possibly visible to the eye alone all month long.

Mercury will move farther away from the setting sun until it reaches its greatest elongation on August 16. Watch for Mercury to make a quasi-conjunction with Jupiter on August 19.

Click here for recommended almanacs; they can give you Mercury’s setting time in your sky.

Look for the moon near Jupiter on August 5  and August 6. Binoculars could come in handy.  The green line depicts the ecliptic - Earth's orbital plane projected on the great dome of sky.

Look for the moon near Jupiter on August 5 and August 6. Binoculars could come in handy. The green line depicts the ecliptic – Earth’s orbital plane projected on the great dome of sky.

Jupiter low in west after sunset. From mid-northern latitudes, the king planet sets about two hours after the sun in early August and about roughly one hour after the sun by the month’s end. From the Southern Hemisphere, Jupiter stays out until mid-evening in early August and around nightfall in late August.

From around the world, Jupiter will fade into the sunset by late August or early September. As Jupiter descends sunward throughout the month, it’ll have a quasi-conjunction with Mercury on August 19, and an actual conjunction with Venus on August 27.

As evening falls, Mars and Saturn shine in the southern sky, while Jupiter appears in the west. So it should be pretty easy to distinguish Jupiter from ruddy Mars, especially since these two brilliant worlds shine in different parts of the sky.

The moon swings close to Jupiter on the sky’s dome for several days, centered on or near August 5.

View larger | Mikhail Chubarets in the Ukraine made this chart.  It shows the view of Mars through a telescope in 2016.  We pass between Mars and the sun on May 22.  We won't see Mars as a disk like this with the eye alone. But, between the start of 2016 and May, the dot of light that is Mars will  grow dramatically brighter and redder in our night sky. Watch for it!

View larger | Mikhail Chubarets in the Ukraine made this chart. It shows the view of Mars through a telescope in 2016. We never see Mars as a disk like this with the eye alone. But you can see why Mars has been so bright to the eye in 2016.

Use the moon to find the planets Mars and Saturn plus the star Antares on August 10, August 11 and August 12. The green line depicts the ecliptic - the sun's yearly path and the moon's monthly path in front of the constellations of the zodiac.

Use the moon to find the planets Mars and Saturn plus the star Antares on August 10, August 11 and August 12. The green line depicts the ecliptic – the sun’s yearly path and the moon’s monthly path in front of the constellations of the zodiac.

Mars, dusk until late night, shines near Saturn. Mars is still bright this month, though fainter than it was earlier in 2016! Saturn came closest to Earth for the year on June 3, less than four days after Mars’ closest approach to Earth on May 30. Although Mars and Saturn are beginning to fade a bit, they’re still plenty bright and easy to see – especially Mars!

Mars was at its brightest at its opposition on May 22. Jupiter was at its brightest during its opposition on March 8. Mars and Jupiter will remain spectacularly bright in the August night sky, but, by the month’s end, you’ll notice the brightness of Mars has waned somewhat.

Looking for a sky almanac? EarthSky recommends…

Here’s some really good news, though. Mars is near another planet on the sky’s dome, Saturn. Look for Mars and Saturn near Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. They make a noticeable triangle on the sky’s dome.

Let the moon help guide your eye to Mars (plus Saturn and the bright star Antares) for several evenings, centered on or near August 11. Then watch for the moon to move away from Mars and to sail by Saturn on August 12.

Then watch for the conjunction of Mars and Saturn on August 24.

Mars moves in between the planet Saturn and the star Antares on August 24, 2016.Read more

Mars moves in between the planet Saturn and the star Antares on August 24, 2016.Read more

Saturn, dusk until late night, shines near Mars. Both Mars and Saturn are near a fainter object – still one of the sky’s brightest stars – Antares in the constellation Scorpius.

The ringed planet starts out the month appearing in the south to southwest sky at nightfall. At the beginning of the month, Saturn will soar to its highest point for the night around 8 p.m. local time (9 p.m. local Daylight Saving Time). By the month’s end, Saturn will be at its high point around 6 p.m. local time (7 p.m. local Daylight Saving Time).

Although Saturn shines on par with the sky’s brightest stars, its brilliance can’t match that of Mars. Look for Saturn near Mars all month long. These two worlds form a bright celestial triangle with the star Antares in the August night sky. Mars is brighter than Saturn, which in turn is brighter than Antares.

Mars will eventually catch up with Saturn on August 24, 2016, to present a conjunction of these two worlds in the August evening sky.

Watch for the moon to swing by Saturn for several days, centered on or near August 12.

Saturn, the farthest world that you can easily view with the eye alone, appears golden in color. It shines with a steady light. Binoculars don’t reveal Saturn’s gorgeous rings, by the way, although binoculars will enhance Saturn’s golden color. To see the rings, you need a small telescope. A telescope will also reveal one or more of Saturn’s many moons, most notably Titan.

http://www.leisurelyscientist.com

Tom Wildoner over-exposed Saturn itself to capture this view of Saturn’s moons on June 25, 2016. Visit Tom at LeisurelyScientist.com.

Contrasting the size of Saturn and its rings with our planet Earth via Hubble Heritage Team.

Contrasting the size of Saturn and its rings with our planet Earth via Hubble Heritage Team.

Saturn’s rings are inclined at a little more than 26o from edge-on in August 2016, exhibiting their northern face. Next year, 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.

Click here for recommended almanacs. They can help you know when the planets rise, transit and set in your sky

What do we mean by bright planet? By bright 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 bright planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets actually do appear bright in our sky. They are typically as bright as – or brighter than – the brightest stars. Plus, these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.

From late January, and through mid-February, 5 bright planets were visible at once in the predawn sky. This image is from February 8, 2016.  It's by Eliot Herman in Tucson, Arizona.  View on Flickr.

From late January, and through mid-February, 5 bright planets were visible at once in the predawn sky. This image is from February 8, 2016. It’s by Eliot Herman in Tucson, Arizona. View on Flickr.

Bottom line: In August 2016, Jupiter starts out the month above Mercury and Venus in the western evening sky. Toward the end of the month, Venus climbs above Mercury and then Jupiter. Saturn and the bright star Antares make a triangle with Mars on the sky’s dome, shining from dusk until late night.

Easily locate stars and constellations with EarthSky’s planisphere.

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Bruce McClure

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