Drawing: Five planets together in night sky
Space.com  /  Starry Night
Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus and Mercury are appearing together in the same night sky. This is the view at 6:30 p.m. local time March 27, as seen from midnorthern latitudes.
By Night Sky Columnist
updated 3/19/2004 7:38:45 PM ET 2004-03-20T00:38:45

All five of the naked-eye planets are now visible at the same time in the evening — an event that won't be repeated until April 2036.

The sky show will be at its best from late March into the first days of April: The five brightest naked-eye planets will all be simultaneously in view in the early evening sky from roughly 45 to 90 minutes after sunset. In addition, from March 22 through April 2, the moon will traverse the scene and on some evenings will appear to pass close to this or that world.

Observing details for all five planets are presented in the order that they will appear across the sky, going from west to east:

MERCURY: Mercury is much lower and less bright than brilliant Venus, but it should nevertheless be easy to find during the second half of March. Other than Venus, no star or planet low in the western evening sky competes with Mercury for brightness. The trick is picking it out just after the sun sets, because Mercury itself follows the sun down quickly.

Mercury should be easily visible a little above the western horizon, being at magnitude –1.3 (almost as bright as Sirius, the brightest star) and setting an hour after the sun. It’s at greatest elongation (farthest east of the sun) on the evening of March 29. By that time is will appear as a zero-magnitude starlike object setting shortly after evening twilight ends.

Although this speedy planet gets no farther than 19 degrees from the Sun, this apparition is the year’s best for the Northern Hemisphere.

Look for a slender crescent moon hovering well above and to Mercury’s left on the evening of March 22. During the first few evenings of April, Mercury can still be spotted. On the evening of April 1, look for it about 45 minutes after sunset, shining at magnitude +0.6. Fading rapidly to magnitude +1.6 and setting much earlier each night, this planet will become difficult to see by April 5. Inferior conjunction with the sun will take place again on April 17.

VENUS: The brightest of all planets continues to grow more brilliant, reaching magnitude –4.4 by the end of March. Only the moon can outshine Venus in the night sky. The best of this Venus apparition is yet to come: greatest apparent separation from the sun (greatest eastern elongation: 46 degrees) occurs on March 29 – the same day as Mercury’s.

Greatest brilliancy for Venus will come in May, followed by a dramatic plunge toward an exceedingly rare transit across the Sun’s disk on June 8.

Venus is now as high as it ever gets for evening viewers at mid-northern latitudes, remaining up for about four hours after the Sun goes down. On the evening of March 24, just more than two degrees will separate Venus from a lovely crescent moon. An added bonus will be Venus’s closest approach to the Pleiades Star Cluster just a few days after its peak altitude and greatest elongation.

Indeed, on the evenings of April 2 and 3 it will be less than 1 degree from the brightest Pleiad, 3rd-magnitude Alcyone, with the brilliant light from Venus almost overwhelming it. As a matter of fact, you may need binoculars to properly see the Pleiades on these nights, whereas several nights before and after, the separation from Venus is enough to allow the star cluster to stand out.

Telescopic observers should try to view the planet’s "half-moon" phase before the sky fully darkens and Venus becomes too dazzling. Yes, Venus goes through phases.

MARS: The Red Planet stands high in the west-northwest at dusk and sets between 11 and 11:30 p.m. all through March. It continues to dim as it moves away from Earth.

On March 1, it was 155 million miles away and appeared at magnitude +1.1 (as bright as the star Pollux). By month’s end, its distance from us will have increased by more than 29 million miles and it will be down to magnitude +1.4 (as bright as Regulus).

On the evenings of March 20 and 21, Mars will slip about 3 degrees to the south of the Pleiades Star Cluster. Then during the evening of March 25, a fat crescent Moon will appear to pass closely to the north of Mars. For those living across northern Canada, Greenland and Iceland, the Moon will appear to occult or hide Mars.

As April gets under way, Mars will be located between the V-shaped Hyades and Pleiades star clusters. It may be hard to believe that this was the same object that made headlines last August when it passed so near to the Earth and outshone everything in the night sky except for the Moon and Venus!

SATURN: In Gemini, the Twins, Saturn stands high in the east-southeast sky at dusk. By the end of the month, it will be setting at about 1 a.m. local time. Small telescopes continue to provide a wonderful view of Saturn’s beautiful ring system.

In addition, Saturn will be at east quadrature (90 degrees east of the Sun) on March 26, so this month is a good time to see the shadow of the planet cast farthest to its eastern side, giving the planet and its rings a greater depth in appearance.

The Moon visits Saturn on March 28, Saturn appearing as a bright yellowish-hued "star" below and to the Moon’s right.

JUPITER: The giant gas planet shines as a brilliant silvery "star" in Leo low in the eastern sky as dusk arrives. It is unmistakably the brightest star or planet in the region of sky it inhabits. Jupiter arrived at opposition to the Sun – rising as the Sun sets, highest in the sky at midnight and setting at sunrise – on March 4 and will now climb higher in the evening every week thereafter.

During mid-March the giant planet is ready for telescopic observing some 30 degrees up in the east by about 8 p.m. local time. It’s higher in the evening at later times and dates.

Jupiter reaches its highest position in the south around midnight and is heading toward its setting in the west during dawn. Besides its prominent cloud belts, the smallest telescope – even steadily held 7-power binoculars – will reveal the four bright satellites of Jupiter as tiny stars nearly in line and changing their places in the line as they revolve around the planet in orbits nearly edgewise to us.

On the evening of April 2, the Moon will pay Jupiter a visit, the giant planet appearing as a bright silvery "star" shining to the Moon’s right.

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