Mars is now rising over your eastern horizon not long after the sun goes down, heading for its once-in-two-years opposition on October 13, 2020. In other words, we’ll be passing between the sun and Mars then. At this wondrous time, with Mars so close, it is actually supplanting Jupiter as the sky’s fourth-brightest celestial body, after the sun, moon, and the planet Venus. It’s very bright and very red now and altogether something to see!
Beginning around mid-September, as seen from around the globe, Mars is ascending in the east in early evening to mid-evening. You can’t miss it. No other object in our evening sky (with the exception of the moon) is so bright, and certainly none is so red in color.
By around the last evening of September – and in the first few evenings of October – Mars will be near the nearly full or entirely full Harvest Moon. Big bright Mars next to a big bright Harvest Moon? What could be better?
As the weeks go by, Mars will be rising earlier. By mid-October, it’ll be rising in the east as the sun sets in the west.
After that, for the remainder of this year, Mars will be in our sky at sunset, fading in brightness as the year draws to a close, but still … a sight to see.
Jupiter and Saturn are near one another on the sky’s dome throughout September, with Saturn following Jupiter westward across the sky from nightfall until well after midnight. In July 2020, these gas giant worlds reached their yearly oppositions, when Earth – in its yearly orbit – swung between these outer worlds and the sun. Thus we were closest to Jupiter and Saturn for the year in July. Jupiter and Saturn, in turn, were at their brightest and out all night. Now they’re in the sky for fewer hours of the night, but still dazzlingly noticeable and very beautiful. They are headed for a great conjunction in December 2020.
In some respects, though, September gives us a better month than July or August for viewing Jupiter and Saturn. That’s because these two worlds remain bright and beautiful throughout September, yet appear highest up for the night right around nightfall.
That’s good news for people with telescopes who don’t want to stay up late. It’s quite convenient to have Jupiter and Saturn highest up for the night as soon as darkness falls. 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 than lower down. The thickness of the Earth’s atmosphere near the horizon tends to blur the view of Jupiter’s moon and Saturn’s rings.
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 14 times. After all, Jupiter ranks as the fourth brightest celestial object, after the sun, the moon and the planet Venus, respectively.
For the first time since the year 2000, Jupiter and Saturn will showcase a great conjunction in December 2020, for 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 solar system’s two biggest planets, Jupiter and Saturn. The last great Jupiter-Saturn conjunction was May 28, 2000. The next one will be December 21, 2020. But September 2020 presents a fine time to start watching these worlds.
Watch for the moon in the neighborhood of Jupiter and Saturn for several days, centered on or near September 24.
Venus – the brightest planet – reached its greatest elongation from the sun in the morning sky on August 12 or 13 (depending upon your time zone). But dazzling Venus will remain bright and beautiful as a morning “star” for the rest of this year.
At mid-northern latitudes, Venus rises about 3 1/2 hours before the sun throughout September.
At and near the equator, Venus rises 3 hours before the sun in early September, decreasing to 2 1/2 hours near the month’s end.
At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Venus rises about 2 1/2 hours before the sun in early September, tapering to 1 3/4 hours by the month’s end.
Throughout September, Venus in its faster orbit around the sun will be going farther and farther away from Earth. As viewed through the telescope, Venus’ waxing gibbous phase will widen, yet its overall disk size will shrink. Venus’ disk is 60% illuminated in early September, and 71% illuminated by the month’s end; Venus’ angular diameter, on the other hand, will shrink to 80% of its initial size by late September.
Watch for the waning crescent moon to shine with Venus in the morning sky for several days, centered on or near September 14.
Mercury is an evening planet all month long, though only nominally so at northerly latitudes. September 2020 showcases the best evening apparition of Mercury for the year in the Southern Hemisphere. Mercury will be a whopping 25 degrees east of the sun from September 26 till October 7, 2020, and at its greatest elongation on October 1.
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.
Bottom line: September 2020 presents 4 of the 5 bright solar system planets in the evening sky (Mercury only nominally so at northerly latitudes). Catch Jupiter and Saturn at nightfall, Mars at early evening, and Venus in the predawn/dawn sky.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.