Three planets light up the sky as soon as darkness falls on these May 2012 nights. Venus beams like a lighthouse in the western sky at dusk. Mars and Saturn are up at nightfall, too, nowhere as bright as Venus, but as bright as the brightest stars.
Venus is the brightest planet in the west after sunset now, approaching its time of greatest brilliancy in late April and early May. Venus is always stunning, but, when it’s at its brightest as now, it always appears somewhat low in the sky, and it takes on an eerie sort of brightness. Many report it as a UFO. You’ll have no problem finding Venus. After sunset, just look west. And for more about its extreme brightness try this post:
Mars hangs high in the south after nightfall. It’s still bright even though we’re nearly two months past its March 3, 2012 opposition, when Earth passed between Mars and the sun. Mars is still in front of the constellation Leo, and the Red Planet still shines close to Regulus, the constellation Leo’s brightest star.
To find Mars, look high in the south when darkness falls. The planet is bright and orange in color, and those facts should help your eye pick it out. To confirm the object you think is Mars truly is Mars, look for the backwards question mark pattern in the constellation Leo the Lion (see image above). The backwards question mark in Leo is called The Sickle, and it represents the head and shoulders of Leo. The bright blue-white star Regulus marks the bottom of the question mark pattern. Mars is close to Regulus.
Saturn sits rather low in the southeast at dusk and nightfall. Saturn is the least conspicuous of the bright planets, but it’s near its brightest now, since its opposition was April 15. In other words, Earth passed between Saturn and the sun then. Saturn is still snuggled up with Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.
If you have difficultly locating Mars and Saturn in the evening sky, let the moon be your guide in the days ahead. The moon will swing close to Mars on Monday, April 30, and Tuesday, May 1, and then will sweep close to Saturn for a few days, starting on Thursday, May 3. Be sure to circle these dates on your calendar!
Bottom line: You can see three planets at nightfall in late April and May 2012: Venus, Mars and Saturn. This post tells how to spot them and provides illustrations.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.