By Anna Edmonds
The planets we can see with our naked eyes in May and June are Jupiter and Saturn in the evening, Mars shortly after midnight, and Venus for about an hour just before sunrise. Mercury, which has put in a brief appearance, will be lost in the Sun’s glare before this Newsletter is published.
Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto all rise after midnight, but without a telescope we won’t be able to see them.
Besides looking for the steady lights in the night sky—an easy way to identify these planets this spring—a better way is to know their locations relative to the constellations. That means learning to find the constellations and then to hop around among them.
You probably already know several constellations. The Big Dipper (with its Pointers), the Little Dipper (with the North Star), and the lopsided “W” that makes the chair for Cassiopeia are always visible in our sky. (However, the Big Dipper does get low in the north in the fall evenings.) The planets are never so far north, but we can use these constellations to help find where to look for planets.
For instance, in May Jupiter will be with the constellation Cancer, moving towards the southwest as the spring progresses. A quick way to find Cancer (which is not a spectacular grouping of stars) is to pretend you can grasp hold of the handle of the Big Dipper. Then bang the bottom of the Dipper’s bowl straight down on the constellation Leo. You’ll know Leo because it has the 1st magnitude star Regulus, and the distinctive-looking circle of stars that makes a sickle or the lion’s mane. Having found Leo, look to the left for Cancer. By now you should easily have spotted bright Jupiter. With good binoculars you may be able to see four of its moons.
Saturn is farther on to the left between the constellations Gemini and Taurus. Gemini is marked by its two large, almost “twin” stars, Castor and Pollux. Saturn will be getting lost in the haze around the setting Sun by the end of May, so now is the time to look for it. If you have a telescope, you should be able to see its band of rings. They are tipped now relative to Saturn, making the width of the rings visible.
This spring looking at Mars is for people who are night owls. It will be rising around midnight way down in the East in the constellation Capricorn. As the year goes on Mars will rise earlier and earlier and grow brighter until at the end of August it will come closer to the Earth than it has ever been in recorded history. That will be the time to see it at its best.
Mars’ current constellation Capricorn, like Cancer, is not distinguished by any bright stars. You may need to do a bit of “star hopping” to get to it. For instance, from Cassiopeia in the northeast around midnight you can look farther east to see the Great Square of Pegasus. (Probably you already know Pegasus.) Then from Pegasus, looking about the same distance farther southeast you should be able to pick out Mars by its color. Mars will help you identify Capricorn, rather than the other way around.
So now you can use a couple of constellations that you knew already to hop around among other constellations and find other objects. Here’s wishing you clear skies as you see your stars and planets!