Would you have believed it a year ago? Real life science fiction – closed borders, cancelled international flights, and nationwide lockdowns. For the Good Heavens team the virus has meant quiet time after an amazing and busy summer on Great Barrier Island. But we’re missing star- and planetgazing, and you, our stargazers. So this May, we are taking you planetgazing, no telescope or binoculars required. A bonus: for observing our biggest planets with the naked eye, no dark sky sanctuary is required, as these planets are bright enough to see even in light polluted skies.
Venus, Evening Star
Have you been going to bed earlier? And rising earlier, too? We have! And as we’ve been enjoying some naked eyeplanet gazing in the evening and even in the early morning, we’d like to share with you how to spot and recognise these beauties, too.
The easiest to observe is the ‘Evening Star’ Venus, after sunset in the northeast. Venus is the brightest object in the sky after our Sun and Moon. Named after the goddess of love, she’s a stunning sight. She has a dense and toxic atmosphere, just like some other goddesses we know, 😉 and she reflects the light of the Sun beautifully.
Spot her soon. She will be visiting around dinner time for just a few weeks more. Then Venus leaves the evening sky altogether, to appear again as the Morning Star in June/July. So grab your chance now.
Venus is relatively close to Earth at present, in our respective orbits around the Sun. Recently, Venus was only around 40 million kilometers away. Once she gets to the opposite side of the Sun, relative to Earth, she’ll be around 260 million kilometers away.
When and where to look
Three other planets are easily visible to the naked eye right now. They are really cool to look at, especially once you know where they are and what they are. Realising what you are looking at can give an awareness of the magnitude of our solar system, and of our place in the universe. As luck would have it, these planets are visually incredibly close together at present, and thus easy to spot.
Look up at the sky around 6am, or earlier if you wish, to see this planet line up. In New Zealand, they’re visible straight above us, slightly more to the west as the month progresses, and sit further to the east earlier in the night.
So what does the planet combo look like? Look for the three brightest ‘stars’, just north of overhead or slightly to the West for those of us in the Southern Hemisphere. As our solar system planets are so much closer to us than any of the stars, apart from our Sun, they are a lot more visible, even though they haven’t got their own source of light.
Jupiter, bright and white giant
I’ve taken a Stellarium snapshot of the planets for you on 5 May 2020. Furthest to the west, or left in the photo, is Jupiter. This is the brightest planet with the whitest light. Jupiter is also the largest planet in our solar system – 1300 earths could fit into it. And its average distance to Earth is around 700 million kilometers.
Through our telescopes, you’d be able to see the bands on its surface, but to the naked eye, it just looks beautiful and bright.
Jupiter is closely followed by Saturn, the dot closest to the middle of the photo, which to our eyes has a slightly golden hue. Saturn is roughly twice as far away from us as Jupiter, around 1400 million kilometers. If you looked through a telescope, you would be able to see Saturn’s rings.
And Saturn in turn is followed by Mars. A close neighbour to us, like Venus. Of all the planets, Mars has the most colour, because of the iron oxide on its surface. Check if you can see why it’s called the red planet. Mars is roughly between 80 and 400 million kilometers away from the Earth, and is getting closer to us at the moment. It will be closest to Earth (perigee is the term used by astronomers) on 6 October this year. The visual size and brightness of Mars increase when it gets closer, so keep an eye on it as we are catching up with this planet in our orbits around our Sun and see it glow and grow!
See you under the stars!
We would love to think that you are observing these planets with us in the coming weeks, or even months, as they gradually appear earlier in the night, and then into the evening sky.
We’ll be looking forward to watching these planets with you in our super dark Dark Sky Sanctuary sky, whether you want to come planet- and stargazing with Good Heavens this year, if you are living in New Zealand, or a bit further in the future if you are living elsewhere on our own beautiful blue and green planet.