Ancient stargazers knew of five planets, which they called wanderers, because the planets don’t have fixed positions among the fixed stars. These five planets – bright enough to view with the eye, sometimes brighter than the brightest stars – are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
Beginning around the second week of December, and for the rest of this month, you can spot all five of the planets in the evening sky. But you’ll need to look shortly after sunset and have a clear evening twilight sky. Because of the angle the planets take across the sky, all five will be easier to see from the Southern Hemisphere than from the northern part of the globe. Mercury and Venus, especially, are near the sunset. A great observing trick to help faint objects – or objects in bright twilight like Mercury and Venus in early December – pop in to view is to use averted vision. Or … scan with binoculars!
Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have been visible for many months. Mars is farthest to the east, a bright reddish point of light. The red planet reached opposition, opposite the sun in or sky, on December 8. So Mars is currently at the brightest it will be for two years.
Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can be found along the ecliptic, or sun’s path across the sky. The two gas giant planets have been good targets in our evening sky for months.
Mercury and Venus were too close to the sun to see last month. They were passing on the far side of the sun from Earth. But we’ve already heard from people who’ve spotted them above the horizon after sunset. Start looking about 30 minutes after sunset. You might catch them as the sky is darkening just before they slip below the horizon. Both will get easier as the month progresses, although Mercury will slip back into the sunset glare around the year’s end. But, between now and then, there will be many evenings when you can spot both Venus and Mercury above the sunset horizon, shortly after the sun goes down.
The moon and 5 planets
On December 8, the moon, just hours after full phase, was rising in the east near Mars as Mercury and Venus set in the southwest. The next time you’ll see the moon near any of these evening planets will be after new moon on December 23. By December 24, many across Earth’s globe will see a young crescent moon beside Mercury and Venus in the west after sunset. On December 25, as seen from North American, the moon will be between the innermost planets and golden Saturn. Then, on December 26, you can find the moon alongside Saturn.
Next, the moon approaches and then passes Jupiter on December 28 and 29. And it won’t reach Mars until January 3, 2023.
Kelly Kizer Whitt has been a science writer specializing in astronomy for more than two decades. She began her career at Astronomy Magazine, and she has made regular contributions to AstronomyToday and the Sierra Club, among other outlets. Her children’s picture book, Solar System Forecast, was published in 2012. She has also written a young adult dystopian novel titled A Different Sky. When she is not reading or writing about astronomy and staring up at the stars, she enjoys traveling to the national parks, creating crossword puzzles, running, tennis, and paddleboarding. Kelly lives in Wisconsin.
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