August 2020 guide to the bright planets

Four of the 5 bright planets are visible in the August 2020 sky. You’ll notice bright Jupiter and Saturn near each for most of these August nights. Red Mars rises in the east at mid-to-late evening, lighting the nighttime until dawn. Venus, the brightest planet, dominates the eastern sky in the hours before sunup.

Click the name of a planet to learn more about its visibility in August 2020: Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, Mercury

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Sky chart with 4 positions of the moon and 2 dots for Jupiter and Saturn near the ecliptic line.

Look for the bright moon to appear in the vicinity of Jupiter and Saturn for several days, centered on or near August 1, 2020. Read more.

Sky chart with 3 positions of the moon, with a dot for Mars, near the ecliptic line.

Th waning gibbous moon swings close to Mars on the sky’s dome for several days, centered on or near August 8, 2020. Read more.

Sky chart with 3 positions of the moon and dot for Mars, close to the ecliptic line.

If you’re more of an early bird than a night owl, look for the moon and Mars much higher up in the predawn/dawn sky. Note: the moon appears larger on the sky chart than it does in the real sky. Read more.

Sky chart: Venus adorns the eastern morning sky in August 2020.

Two major celestial events happen almost concurrently in the predawn sky on August 12 or 13, 2020 (the exact date depends on your time zone). The planet Venus swings to its greatest elongation in the morning sky, while the Perseid meteor shower showcases the peak number of meteors. Read more.

Sky chart: 3 positions of thin crescent moon near Venus along line of ecliptic.

It’ll be worth getting up for, as the waning crescent moon meets up with the queen planet Venus on the sky’s dome for several days, centered on August 15, 2020. Read more.

Sky chart: moon goes by the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn near line of ecliptic.

The moon swings by the planets Jupiter and Saturn for several days in late August 2020, centered around August 28 or 29, 2020. Read more.

Jupiter and Saturn are the planets to watch as darkness falls in August 2020. They are near one another on the sky’s dome, with Saturn following Jupiter westward across the sky from dusk/nightfall until the wee hours of the morning. Last month, July 2020, was a banner month for these gas giant worlds, as Jupiter and Saturn both came to opposition in July.

Earth – in its yearly orbit – swung between these outer worlds and the sun in July 2020. Thus we were closest to Jupiter and Saturn for the year in July. Jupiter and Saturn, in turn, shone at their brightest best and were out all night long.

Read more: Jupiter at opposition on July 13-14

Read more: Saturn at opposition on July 20

Sky chart: Jupiter, Saturn and the Teapot asterism.

Jupiter and Saturn climb highest up for the night at mid-to-late evening in early August, and by early-to-mid evening by the month’s end. Read more.

In some respects, though, August gives us a better month than July for viewing Jupiter and Saturn in the evening sky. That’s because these two worlds remain bright and beautiful throughout August, yet appear higher up in the sky at nightfall. That’s good news for those whose eastern horizon is obstructed, such as by trees and/or mountains.

That’s also good news for people with telescopes who don’t want to stay up until late night. Typically, the view of Jupiter’s four major moons and Saturn’s glorious rings through the telescope is sharper when these worlds are higher up in the sky. The thickness of the Earth’s atmosphere near the horizon tends to blur the spectacle.

Positions of Jupiter’s moons via Sky & Telescope

Look first for brilliant Jupiter; Saturn is the bright object immediately to Jupiter’s east. Although Saturn is easily as bright as a 1st-magnitude star – as bright as the brightest stars in our sky – the ringed planet can’t compete with the the king planet Jupiter, which outshines Saturn by some 15 times. After all, Jupiter ranks as the fourth brightest celestial object, after the sun, the moon and the planet Venus, respectively.

Around the world, Jupiter and nearby Saturn still lurk rather low in the southeast sky in early August, and transit (reach their highest point for the night) at late evening. By the month’s end, these two worlds will transit at early-to-mid evening.

For the first time since the year 2000, look for Jupiter and Saturn to showcase their great conjunction in 2020, the closest Jupiter-Saturn conjunction since the year 1623. Astronomers use the word conjunction to describe meetings of planets and other objects on our sky’s dome. They use the term great conjunction to describe a meeting of the king planet Jupiter and golden Saturn. The last great Jupiter-Saturn conjunction was May 28, 2000. The next one will be December 21, 2020. But August 2020 presents a fine time to start watching these worlds.

Read more: Before 2020 ends, a great conjunction for Jupiter and Saturn

Watch for the moon in the vicinity of Jupiter and Saturn for several days, centered on or near August 1, and then again near the month’s end, centered on or near August 28.

Mars is the only bright evening planet (Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) not to pop out first thing at dusk/nightfall. In early August, look for Mars to be up by mid-to-late evening; and by the month’s end, Mars rises by early-to-mid evening. Thus Mars is coming up earlier daily, heading for its own opposition on October 13, 2020. At that wondrous time, Mars will actually supplant Jupiter as the sky’s fourth-brightest celestial body, after the sun, moon, and the planet Venus. That will be something to see!

In August 2020, you’ll find Mars heading toward that dramatic brightening. This month, Mars is respectably bright, more brilliant even than a 1st-magnitude star, or one of the sky’s brightest stars. Earth is now rushing along in its smaller, faster orbit, gaining on Mars, the fourth planet outward from the sun. Throughout the next three months, watch for Mars to brighten dramatically as Earth closes in on Mars, passing between it and the sun in October 2020.

At mid-northern latitudes, Mars rises roughly 10 p.m. (11 p.m. daylight saving time) in early August. By the month’s end, Mars will be up around 9 p.m. (10 p.m. daylight saving time).

At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Mars comes up at or near 11 p.m in early August, and about an hour earlier by the month’s end.

Let the waning moon help guide your eye to Mars on the mornings of August 7, 8 and 9, 2020.

3 dots lined up across photo, crescent moon in deep blue sky above telephone lines before sunup.

View at EarthSky Community Photos. | From Paul Armstrong, who took this photo of Mars, Saturn and Jupiter on the morning of April 15, 2020, from Exmoor, U.K. Jupiter is at the upper right, Mars at center left, with Saturn between them. In May 2020, Jupiter and Saturn were closer together, whereas Mars was farther away from Jupiter and Saturn. Thanks, Paul!

Venus – the brightest planet – flew between the Earth and sun (at inferior conjunction) on June 3, 2020. Some 10 weeks later, Venus will reach its greatest elongation from the sun in the morning sky on August 12 or 13 (depending upon your time zone).

At mid-northern latitudes, Venus rises about 3 1/2 hours before the sun all month long.

At and near the equator, Venus rises over 3 hours before the sun in early August, decreasing slightly to 3 hours near the month’s end.

At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Venus rises over 3 hours before the sun in early August, decreasing to over 2 1/2 hours by the month’s end.

Diagram showing positions of Venus in orbit and its phases at inferior and superior conjunction.

Inferior conjunction – when Venus sweeps between the sun and Earth – happened on June 3, 2020. Just before inferior conjunction, we saw Venus as a thin waning crescent in the evening sky; and just after inferior conjunction, we saw Venus as a thin waxing crescent in the morning sky. In August 2020, Venus will start the month about 43% illuminated and end the month about 59% illuminated. Image via UCLA.

Throughout August, Venus in its faster orbit around the sun will be going farther and farther away from Earth. As viewed through the telescope, Venus’ waxing crescent phase will widen, yet its overall disk size will shrink. Venus’ disk is 43% illuminated in early August, and about 59% illuminated by the month’s end; Venus’ angular diameter, on the other hand, will shrink to 70% of its initial size by the month’s end.

Watch for the waning crescent moon to shine in the vicinity of Venus for several days, centered on or near August 15.

Mercury transitions out the morning sky and into the evening sky this month, so the innermost planet of the solar system is pretty much lost in the sun’s glare throughout August 2020. From northerly latitudes, you might catch Mercury before sunrise in early August; or from southerly latitudes, you might catch Mercury shortly after sunset in late August. September 2020 will feature a particularly fine evening apparition of Mercury in the Southern Hemisphere.

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.

silhouette of man against the sunset sky with bright planet and crescent moon.

Skywatcher, by Predrag Agatonovic.

Bottom line: August 2020 presents 4 of the 5 bright solar system planets. Catch Jupiter and Saturn at nightfall and throughout most of the night, Mars between late evening and dawn, Venus in the predawn/dawn sky. Mercury shifts over from the morning to evening sky, and is pretty much lost in the solar glare.

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Bruce McClure