Observing planets is a great way to begin learning your way around the night sky. This month, it’s particularly easy because all of the planets visible without binocs or a telescope are well-placed for easy viewing. Don't miss the 'Dance of the Planets' in the western sky after sunset over the next two weeks, March 1 - 14. Venus (low and bright) and Jupiter (higher and dimmer) have been visible for months as the sky darkens after sunset. Jupiter is descending daily toward Venus and the two come closest on March 13th. Tiny and elusive Mercury is visible way below Venus around 6:30 p.m., reaching its maximum elevation for this viewing season of 17 degrees on March 5th. Mercury’s a challenge because you need a clear view of the western horizon. It will appear as a bright pinpoint, lowest in the diagonal line coming down from Jupiter through Venus. Because Mercury is the planet closest to the sun, it’s only available for a few days, so try to start finding Mercury now. If you take just a quick peek to the west at 6:30 every clear evening you’ll be able to see the daily change in position of the planets. Unsure about which is a star and which is a planet? It’s easy to distinguish them – stars twinkle but planets don’t.
A little later, by 8 p.m. Mars is well up in the east. Its salmon color is easy to see even under city lights. Mars is closest to Earth this year on March 5th. No, it will not be the size of the full moon! That story is an Internet hoax from 2004. It will be visible all night. By 10 p.m., the ringed planet Saturn is also above the horizon in the east and is visible throughout the night. If you do have a telescope but haven’t used it yet or for awhile, here’s a good excuse to get it out, dust it off, and get a good look.
So from sunset to dawn for the next two weeks, you can see all the classical planets in their best view of the year. Want to make it even more fun? Point them out to a friend or neighbor; they'll think you're a genius. Once you've seen them a few times, you'll begin to recognize them as 'celestial friends' of a sort from season to season. Enjoy!