May is going to be an excellent month for viewing planets – Mars is still quite prominent, Jupiter will show up nicely in the Western sky as the sun sets, Mercury makes one of its rare viewable times on the 25th of this month, and Venus will continue to greet early risers. But the big star….err…planet of the month is Saturn.
This isn’t rare, but it isn’t really common either. This month (or at least this week) astronomical viewers can have a chance to see 5 planets in a single evening.
After sunset, Mercury will be visible just above the horizon in the West sky – and we do mean just. Trees and houses may block your view of Mercury. However Venus and Jupiter will be more visible right above them also right after sunset, nice and bright, along with Mars, which while still not in occultation is pretty bright, rising in the East just after sunset.
Later in the evening, Saturn will rise in the Eastern sky – this is the only planet you will need to wait for as it is not immediately visible after sundown.
Although Mercury may be blocked by buildings, all of these planets can be seen with the naked eye, even in light-polluted areas.
For your best viewing be sure to get an area with a clear horizon so that all the planets can be seen.
So in our last Astronomy Hints we discussed how to view the inner planets.
This time we’ll be discussing the outer planets That means the Gas Giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. We’ll also talk about the dwarf planets as well – or at least one of them.
So let’s get started:
JUPITER – Jupiter is very bright and usually little effected by light pollution. When viewing Jupiter you should stick to moderate magnifications levels – don’t ‘crank it up’ as it were. You should be able to see some of the banding, but don’t expect much color. Most of what you will see are bands of brown and gray. The edges of Jupiter will also likely appear a bit hazy and undefined at times. What should be clear are a number of Jupiter’s Galilean moons. There can be up to 4 visible at any time. As you use larger telescopes, the bands may appear more defined and there should be more of them visible in the telescope. Jupiter is one of the most impressive things to be seen in a telescope, and anyone who does not point his telescope at it at least once is missing out.
SATURN -Equally impressive, if for different reasons is Saturn, the ringed planet. How well you see Saturn depends on the size of telescope you are using. In a small (60mm) telescope Saturn appears almost like a cartoon of an eye. The Planet itself forming the center of the eye and the rings acting like an outline. As you get larger telescopes the rings get more defined and you should start to get a hint of the Cassini Division – the largest separation in Saturn’s rings. Over the years, our angle of looking at Saturn’s rings changes so that at times we are looking at the ring edge-on, other times the gap is as wide as it will ever get. Like Jupiter, moderate power is the key.
URANUS – Uranus is the first of the major planets that is invisible to the naked eye. Uranus can be tricky to find but with the proper start charts or programs it shouldn’t be too hard. Once found, Uranus should have a gray-greenish/blue color in your telescope. There won’t be many details – Uranus’ surface is pretty uniform.
NEPTUNE – Now considered the furthest planet in our Solar System, Neptune, like Uranus, is invisible to the naked eye. Once you do find it it should be uniform like Uranus, but also a slightly darker blue.
PLUTO – Only recently demoted from planet status, we still get a lot of people asking about how to view what was for a long time considered the furthest planet in our solar system. Pluto is….tricky. Keep in mind it eluded view until the 20th century and sneaky techniques were needed to spot it. Even if you do manage to find Pluto it is not an impressive view – it looks like any other star. Don’t feel too badly, the Hubble doesn’t get much detail either. Pluto is rather faint and probably not visible in smaller telescopes. You should keep magnification low and know what you are looking for!