In our era of mind-twisting cosmic items like pulsars and black holes, when edge-of-the-universe galaxies are routinely detected by billion-dollar technologies like the James Webb Space Telescope, when questionable ideas like multiverses and string theory are part of the mainstream vocabulary, there might seem little room for things as familiar and local as the nearby bright planets.
Shoving them further back in our minds, only Venus was on display during the first half of this year. But now, rather suddenly, the three most photogenic planets are out and brightly visible all together, and at a conveniently early hour to boot.
If you’ve got a telescope, they’re worthy entertainment. If you only have your eyeballs, it’s still gratifying to see and identify them, and they’re Covid-safe. Even if you live under less-than-unspoiled skies, planets are bright enough to bulldoze their way to urban visibility, since the three best range from bright to super-brilliant.
There are two time periods you can choose from — 5:30 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. At 5:30 simply look to the south, to the same spot the Sun nowadays occupies at noon. There’s a bright star there. It’s not high up, nor is it very low. Let’s call it lowish. And it’s definitely moderately bright but not brilliant. This is Saturn. Its rings are arguably the most gasp-producing item in the heavens, but do require a small telescope. Binoculars won’t show them since you need at least 30x, and the 7-10x magnification of binoculars won’t do the job.
To Saturn’s upper left is the sky’s most brilliant “star” – the planet Jupiter. Steadily-braced binoculars, like if you plant your elbows on a car hood or window sill, will show its four huge satellites, which are probably the likeliest places for life in our solar system. With a telescope and a steady night, intricate detail on Jupiter’s gassy “surface” spring to light. But merely identifying this largest planet is a satisfying experience. Think of it: 1,300 planet Earths could fit inside Jupiter if it were hollow. And in terms of mass or weight, Jupiter equals the substance of all the other planets combined and doubled. Yet this huge body spins in just ten hours. No wonder its appearance is dominated by dark stripes or belts — it’s like carnival spin art.
Finally, there’s Mars. That where you need the 8:30 p.m. time slot. Mars is brightening nightly, and will reach its very closest and brightest two weeks from now. But already it nearly equals Jupiter’s brilliance, except you cannot confuse the two because Mars looks distinctly orange. So if you want to pick a single time to go out and look, hit your backyard at 8:30. Mars is that brilliant orange “star” in the east, Jupiter is the brightest “star” but is yellow-white, while Saturn is now low in the west.
You’ve then identified the next three worlds outwards from Earth, and the three that offer the most detail through any backyard telescope. Why not give it a go the next clear night?