See All Five Naked Eye Planets in the Dusk Sky at Once

Solar System

Hosting an evening star party this summer? You’re in for a treat. Starting later this week, all five naked eye planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) are visible in the evening sky at dusk for a brief few weeks. We had a similar lineup in the dawn sky earlier in 2016, as the Earth had all the inner planets in its forward-facing view — now, we see these same planets in our collective rear view mirror, as we lap Mars, Jupiter and Saturn on the inner track, while Mercury and Venus race to catch up with us.

Dusk on the evening of August 8th. Image credit: Stellarium.
Dusk on the evening of August 8th, looking to the southwest. Image credit: Stellarium.

At their narrowest, the planets from Saturn to Mercury fit within a span just 75 degrees wide in the last half of August. A wide field all-sky shot should catch ’em all in the same frame at once. This isn’t a ‘grand conjunction’ in a strict sense. To have all five planets visible, you need the slowest and outermost of the five — Jupiter and Saturn, with orbital periods of 11.9 and 29.5 years respectively — in the same general swath of sky. Both are headed towards conjunction on December 21st, 2020, making such groupings more frequent as they race past the other three. The next true quintuple grand conjunction occurs on September 8th, 2040, when all 5 planets span just 9.3 degrees of the sky… the closest span since September 18th, 1186!

Can you see 'em? Five planets from Monte Mario in Rome on February 2nd, 2016. Image credit: Gianluca Masi/The Virtual Telescope project.
Can you see ’em? Five planets from Monte Mario in Rome on February 2nd, 2016. Image credit: Gianluca Masi/The Virtual Telescope project.

There’s  a lot to watch out for in the next few weeks. Here’s a who’s who of planets this July and August, from east to west:

Saturn: shining at magnitude +0.4 in the constellation Ophiuchus, Saturn is fresh off of opposition on June 3rd. Riding high in the southeast at dawn, Saturn makes a close 4.4 degree pass near Mars on August 24th, and the pair makes a straight line completed by the bright star Antares on the same date.

Mars: High to the south in the constellation Libra at dusk, Mars begins its slow dive into the dusk during the last half of 2016. Currently shining at a respectable magnitude -0.9, Mars passed opposition on May 22nd and is headed towards a grand opposition in 2018, nearly as close as the historic close pass of 2003.

Jupiter: Sitting in the constellation Leo, Jupiter shines at magnitude -1.6 and is about 20-30 degrees above the southwestern horizon at dusk. Jupiter passed quadrature 90 degrees east of the Sun on June 4th and opposition for 2016 on March 8th.

Venus: The bashful planet of the group, Venus is slowly appearing from behind the Sun low in the dusk and headed for a brilliant dusk apparition later in 2016 and early 2017. Currently 3 degrees east of the Sun on July 31st, Venus reaches greatest elongation 47 degrees east of the Sun on January 12th, 2017. We’ve just been able to begin spying Venus using binocs last week from the rooftop of our Casablanca Air BnB. Follow that planet, as Venus makes a close 6′ pass near Jupiter on August 27th.

Mercury: And the innermost planet makes five, as Mercury reaches greatest elongation 27 degrees east of the Sun on August 16th. When can you first catch sight of Mercury, completing the fivesome? Jupiter and Venus actually make great bookends in the hunt, as +0.5 magnitude Mercury wanders between them through early August. It’s too bad dusk twilight obscured the view this past weekend, as both Mercury and Venus photobombed the Beehive Cluster M44 in Cancer. Mercury also passes 20′ from the bright star Regulus on July 30th.

Looking west on the evening of July 19th, 2016. Credit Starry Night Education Software.
Looking west on the evening of July 19th, 2016. Credit Starry Night Education Software.

But wait, there’s more. The Moon passes New on August 2nd, entering back into the dusk sky. The one day old Moon will pass the grouping of Venus, Regulus and Mercury on the evening of August 4th, actually occulting (passing in front of) Mercury for the southernmost tip of South America. The Moon then moves on to occult Jupiter for good measure on August 6th for the South Pacific and southeast Asia in the daytime. Finally, the waxing gibbous Moon makes a wide pass near Mars, Antares and Saturn on the evening of August 12th, on the same evening that the 2016 Perseids are due to occur.

The footprint of the August 4th occultation of Mercury by the Moon. Image credit: Occult 4.2 software.
The footprint of the August 4th occultation of Mercury by the Moon. Image credit: Occult 4.2 software.

The Moon also reaches the nearest apogee (think ‘closest far point’) of the year, at 404,265 kilometers from the Earth on August 10th and reaches Full on August 18th, featuring a subtle penumbral eclipse and the start of eclipse season 2 of 2 for 2016.

More on all of these events in the coming weeks. So, if you find yourself out hunting Pokémon G0 creatures ’til the late dusk hours this summer, don’t forget to look up at the greatest show in the solar system!

Tonight: The Rise of the 2013 “Mini-Moon”

  The final Full Moon of 2013 occurs tonight, and along with it comes something special: the most distant and visually smallest Full Moon of 2013.

Why doesn’t the annual “mini-moon” receive the same fanfare and hype that the yearly perigee – or do you say Proxigean to be uber-obscure – “supermoon” does? The smallest Full Moon of the year does appear to have a public relations problem in this regard. But as you’ll see, the circumstances for this week’s Full Moon are no less fascinating.

The exact timing of tonight’s Full Moon occurs at 4:28 AM EST/9:28 Universal Time (UT) on Tuesday, December 17th. This occurs just two days and 14 hours prior to the Moon reaching apogee on December 19th at 6:50PM EST/23:50 UT at 406,267 kilometres distant. This is one of the three most distant apogees of 2013, and the closest to Full for the year. It’s also with 500 kilometres of the most distant apogee than can occur, as the Moon’s apogee can vary between ~404,000 and 406,700 kilometres distant.

Tonight’s Full Moon will have an apparent angular diameter of around 29.8’ arc minutes, just a shade lower than the usual value quoted of around half a degree or 30’. The visual size of the Moon as seen from the Earth varies about 12% from 34.1’ to 29.3’. Also, the Moon is also about half an Earth radius more distant when it’s on the local horizon versus at the zenith overhead!

This is also the closest Full Moon to the December solstice, which occurs four days later on Saturday, December 21st at 12:11 PM EST/17:11 UT. This marks the start of astronomical summer in the southern hemisphere and the beginning of the winter season in the north. Think of tonight’s Full Moon as a sort of “placeholder,” marking the point at which the Sun will occupy during the June solstice on the Gemini-Taurus border.

This all means that tonight’s Full Moon rides high for northern hemisphere residents towards local midnight. But the “Long Night’s Moon” of 2013 is rather lackluster in terms of declination. While it’s the northernmost Full Moon of 2013 at a declination of +18.7 degrees, it’s a far cry from the maximum declination of +28.72 degrees (the angle of the ecliptic plus the tilt of the Moon’s orbit) that it can achieve. This only occurs every 18.6 years and last occurred in 2006 and will happen again around 2025. We’re currently headed towards a shallow minimum for the Moon’s orbit in 2015. Ancient European and Native American cultures both knew of this cycle of high-flying moons.

Not weird enough? The next “most distant Full Moon of the Year” happens only one lunation later on January 16th… within just 2 hours of apogee! Perhaps January’s Full Moon is due notoriety as a “Super-Mini Moon?” Such a pairing of “mini-moons” last occurred on 2004-2005 and will next occur on 2021-2022.

The footprint for the lunar occultation of M67. (Created by the author using Occult 4.0)
The footprint for the lunar occultation of M67. (Created by the author using Occult 4.1)

The Moon also visits some other celestial sights this week. After passing five degrees north of Jupiter on December 19th, the Moon heads towards an occultation of the open cluster M67 in the constellation Cancer on December 21st for northern North America. Though the Moon will be waning gibbous, it might just be possible to note the reappearance of the cluster on the Moon’s dark limb. Other occultations for the remainder of December by the Moon include an occultation of Spica on December 27th for northern Asia, Saturn on December 29th for Antarctica, and +3.6th magnitude star Lambda Geminorum for Canada on December 18th.

The passing of the Full Moon also means it will be entering into the morning sky, which also means bad news for viewers of the Ursid meteor shower which peaks on December 22nd and hunters of Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy, currently shining at +5th magnitude in the constellation Hercules low in the dawn.

Moon crossing Orion.
Moon crossing Orion this week. (Credit: Stellarium).

The keen-eyed may notice the Moon also transits through the northern end of the non-zodiacal constellation of Orion on Tuesday, December 17th. Did you know that the Moon can actually stray far enough away from the ecliptic to cross through 18 constellations? The Six non-zodiacal constellations it can transit are: Orion, Ophiuchus, Corvus, Sextans, Auriga and Cetus.

Other names for the December Full Moon include the Yule, Oak, and Cold Moon.

Finally, a new Earthly ambassador is now roaming the lunar surface.

China’s Chang’E-3 spacecraft landed on the Moon just outside of the Bay of Rainbows (Sinus Iridum) near Montes Recti in the northern section of the Mare Imbrium on Saturday, December 14th. The landing site is visible now on the lunar nearside, and can be seen with that new Christmas telescope you’ve been itching to try out. Look for the Sinus Iridum as a wide crescent scarp, a sort of “notch” in the top of Mare Imbrium:

Finding the landing site of Chang'e-3. Photos and graphics by author.
Finding the landing site of Chang’e-3. Photos and graphics by author.

China’s Yutu or “Jade Rabbit” rover has been beaming back some splendid images of the lunar surface!

So don’t let the cold temperatures deter you from exploring the lunar surface, and the strange but fascinating motions of our nearest natural celestial neighbor. Dress warm and be sure this Christmas season to raise a glass of ye ole Nog to the Solstice/Yule Moon.