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April guide to the bright planets

All 5 bright planets appear in the April night sky.

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All five bright planets appear in the April 2017 night sky. Mercury and Mars shine in the west after sunset, while dazzling planet Jupiter – at opposition early in the month – beams in the east, glorious all night long. The two morning planets are Saturn and brilliant Venus. Follow the links below to learn more about the planets in April 2017.

Mercury sets shortly behind the sun

Mars, east of Mercury, until early evening

Bright Jupiter opposite the sun in April

Saturn up around midnight, shining before dawn

Venus, brilliant, low in east before sunrise

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Wow! Wonderful shot of Mercury – over the Chilean Andes – January 2017, from Yuri Beletsky Nightscapes.

For northerly laitudes, the planet Mercury is making its best evening appearance for the year in late March and early April 2017. Look westward some 45 to 60 minutes after sunset. Read more.

Mercury sets shortly behind the sun. For the Northern Hemisphere, Mercury will put on a good showing in the western evening sky after sunset for several weeks, centered on April 1.

Mercury is tricky. If you look too soon after sunset, Mercury will still be obscured by the haze of evening twilight; if you look too late, it will have followed the sun beneath the horizon. Watch for Mercury low in the sky, and near the sunset point on the horizon, as soon as the sky begins to darken after sunset.

Binoculars are always helpful for any Mercury search. Use them to scan along the western horizon until a starlike point – deep in the twilight – comes into view. Mercury is bright, but it’s always near the sunset or sunrise. Thus you have to search for it.

For the Northern Hemisphere, this particular apparition of Mercury in the evening sky is our best of 2017. From temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, it’ll be a poor evening showing of Mercury. Just wait, though. A super apparition of Mercury will take place in the morning sky visible from the Southern Hemisphere throughout May of 2017.

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

Let the waxing crescent moon help guide your eye to Mars on April 27 and 28. Read more.

Mars, east of Mercury, until early evening. After appearing as a fiery red light in our sky last May and June 2016, Mars is now a fading ember of its former self. Look for Mars rather low in the west as soon as darkness falls. Mars is edging closer to the sunset day by day. It’ll disappear in the twilight glare in a month or two.

Mars is not the only celestial object to sink into the twilight dusk in April. In fact, you can use Mars to spot the fading Pleiades star cluster, starting on or near April 17. The Zuni of New Mexico called the Pleiades the “Seed Stars” because the cluster’s disappearance from the evening sky signaled that the danger of frost had passed.

From mid-northern latitudes (U.S. and Europe), look for the red planet Mars to set in the west roughly an hour after nightfall in early April and around nightfall by the month’s end.

At mid-southern latitudes (Australia and South Africa), Mars sets at late dusk or nightfall all month long. Mars may be hard to see in the twilight glare from southerly latitudes and binoculars might be needed to spot it.

Let the waxing crescent moon help guide you to Mars on April 27 and 28. Don’t mistake the red star Aldebaran for the red planet Mars, this 1st-magnitude star shining twice as brilliantly as the red planet.

Mars won’t make its official transition from the evening to morning sky until July 27, 2017. It’ll emerge in the east before dawn in September. The conjunction of Mars and Venus on October 5, 2017, might well be the first time most people notice it.

Looking for a sky almanac? EarthSky recommends…

You can’t miss Jupiter in early April. We pass between it and the sun on April 7, and Jupiter is now ascending in the east after sunset. Still not sure? Extend the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle to bright stars Arcturus and Spica. Jupiter beams close to Spica all year long.

Bright Jupiter opposite the sun in April. Jupiter reaches opposition on April 7 and comes closest to Earth for the year on April 8. Thus, this month, Jupiter shines at its brightest best for all of 2017! It shines all night long – opposite the sun – like a tiny sun from dusk until dawn.

Watch for a full-looking moon to join up with Jupiter for several days, centered on or near April 10, just a few days after Jupiter’s opposition date. See the above sky at the top of this post. Wonderful sight!

From mid-northern latitudes, like those in the U.S. and Europe, Jupiter rises at dusk or nightfall in early April. By the month’s end, Jupiter is seen above the horizon at dusk.

The same applies to tropical latitudes and mid-southern latitudes (Australia). Jupiter rises shortly after sunset in early April and shines above the horizon at dusk in late April.

Jupiter shines in front of the constellation Virgo, near Virgo’s sole 1st-magnitude star, Spica.

Fernando Roquel Torres in Caguas, Puerto Rico captured Jupiter, the Great Red Spot (GRS) and all 4 of its largest moons – the Galilean satellites – on the date of Jupiter’s 2017 opposition (April 7).

If you have binoculars or a telescope, it’s fairly easy to see Jupiter’s four major moons, which look like pinpricks of light on or near the same plane. They are often called the Galilean moons to honor Galileo, who discovered these great Jovian moons in 1610. In their order from Jupiter, these moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

These moons circle Jupiter around the Jovian equator. In cycles of six years, we view Jupiter’s equator edge-on. So, in 2015, we got to view a number of mutual events involving Jupiter’s moons through a high-powered telescope. Click here or here or here for more details.

Although Jupiter’s axial tilt is only 3o out of perpendicular relative to the ecliptic (Earth’s orbital plane), Jupiter’s axis will tilt enough toward the sun and Earth so that the farthest of these four moons, Callisto, won’t pass in front of Jupiter or behind Jupiter for a period of about three years, starting in late 2016. During this approximate 3-year period, Callisto will remain “perpetually” visible, alternately swinging “above” and “below” Jupiter.

Click here for a Jupiter’s moons almanac, courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

Are you an early riser? Look for the moon, the star Antares and the planet Saturn in the predawn and dawn sky on April 15, 16 and 17. Read more.

Saturn up around midnight, shining before dawn. Saturn is getting close to its June 15 opposition and is beginning to shift over into the evening sky.

From mid-northern latitudes, Saturn rises in the east around midnight local time (1 a.m. daylight-saving time) in early April, and by the month’s end, Saturn comes up somewhere around 10 to 11 p.m. local time (11 p.m. to midnight daylight-saving time).

At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Saturn rises about 10 p.m. local time in early April, and by the month’s end, Saturn rises around 8:30 p.m. local time.

But your best view of Saturn, from either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, is still during the dark hour before dawn. That’s when Saturn climbs highest up for the night. Click here to find out when astronomical twilight starts in your morning sky (remember to click on the astronomical twilight box).

Be sure to let the waning crescent moon guide you to Saturn (and the nearby star Antares) for several days, centered on or near April 16 or 17.

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.

Saturn’s rings are inclined at nearly 27o from edge-on, exhibiting their northern face. 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.

Jenney Disimon in Sabah, Borneo captured Venus before dawn on April 8, 2017.

For a few days, centered on April 23, 2017, watch for the beautiful pairing of the waning crescent moon with Venus, the sky’s brightest planet. Read more

Venus, brilliant, low in east before sunrise Venus was in the west after sunset. In late March, it entered our morning sky, passing between the sun and Earth on March 25. It’ll reach another period of greatest brilliancy – when it’ll loom low in the east before dawn (likely prompting many “UFO sightings”) before this month ends. That’s because Venus’ greatest illuminated extent as seen from Earth happens on April 30, 2017.

So it’s brightest before dawn this month, but … Venus is always bright, the brightest thing in our sky besides the sun and moon. If you’re an early bird, you can count on Venus to be your morning companion for many months to come.

Enjoy the picturesque coupling of the waning crescent moon and Venus in the eastern sky before sunrise on or near April 23.

From mid-northern latitudes (U.S. and Europe), Venus rises about one hour before the sun in early April and nearly two hours before sunrise by the month’s end.

At mid-southern latitudes (Australia and South Africa), Venus rises about about one hour before the sun in early April and 3 hours before sunup by the month’s end.

Click here for an almanac giving rising time of Venus in your sky.

The chart below helps to illustrate why we sometimes see Venus in the evening, and sometimes before dawn.

Earth's and Venus' orbits

The Earth and Venus orbit the sun counterclockwise as seen from earthly north. When Venus is to the east (left) of the Earth-sun line, we see Venus as an evening “star” in the west after sunset. After Venus reaches its inferior conjunction, Venus then moves to the west (right) of the Earth-sun line, appearing as a morning “star” in the east before sunrise.

Since Venus passed 8o north of the sun on March 25, it was possible to see Venus as both the evening and morning “star” for several days at northerly latitudes. That’s because, at northerly latitudes, far-northern Venus set after the sun and then came up before the sun as this inferior planet moved over to the morning sky. How often does that happen? It recurs in cycles of 8 years. We’ll see Venus as both a morning and evening sky again – for a few days – when Venus reaches its 5th inferior conjunction in 8 years on March 23, 2025. It’ll happen again when Venus reaches its 10th inferior conjunction in 16 years on March 20, 2033.

Read more: Venus after sunset and before sunrise!

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.

This image is from February 8, 2016. It shows all 5 bright planets at once. Photo by our friend Eliot Herman in Tucson, Arizona.

Skywatcher, by Predrag Agatonovic.

Skywatcher, by Predrag Agatonovic.

Bottom line: In April 2017, three of the five bright planets appear in the evening sky: Mars, Jupiter and Mercury. Saturn and Venus are found the morning sky.

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Bruce McClure