Summer’s unofficial end looms in less than two weeks. Whether you’re at the beach, or tired from back-to-school sales, there is still time to enjoy a plentiful panorama of planets in the evenings from now through Labor Day. The planetary party also continues into the autumn.
For the best viewing, you’ll want to head out after sunset and look to the south.
Gazing from west to east, the effervescent Venus stands strong, low in the western sky at dusk and into the evening now. The robust Jupiter follows Venus in the southwest, the ringed Saturn sails through the southern heavens, and our red neighbor Mars ascends the early evening eastern sky, according to Brian Murphy, professor of physics and astronomy at Butler University in Indianapolis.
A slightly modified planetary party configuration occurs in September.
“This is not a one-and-done event,” said Murphy, who also directs Butler’s Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium. “It’s going to be slow transition … as the four planets are strung across the sky each evening.”
By Wednesday and Thursday nights, an increasingly brighter moon loiters near the reddish Mars (-2.4 magnitude, bright) in the southeastern heavens. It rises now in the east about an hour before sun sets in the west. (The moon becomes full Aug. 26.)
Find Jupiter, large and gaseous, sauntering between Venus and Saturn in the constellation Libra, in the southwestern evening sky this week, at a bright -2.0 magnitude.
You may have already noticed that Mars is very bright this summer. A few weeks back, on July 31, the Red Planet made its closest approach to Earth since 2003. The planet will next make a strong, close approach in 2035, according to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
In mid-September, the moon fills out another planetary dance card. The skinny, waxing crescent moon appears to float above the brilliant Venus — low on the horizon — on Sept. 12 in the west-southwestern sky, Murphy said.
The moon scoots to Jupiter in the southwestern heavens Sept. 13 and then visits Saturn on Sept. 16 to 17, when our lunar neighbor reaches its first quarter. The waxing gibbous moon slides by Mars Sept. 19, according to Murphy. For the United States, the autumnal equinox is Sept. 22 and the full moon will be Sept. 24.
Murphy served as a tour guide to the night sky last Friday night at the Holcomb Observatory, when about 400 people turned out. In this age of glorious photographs from spacecraft, he explained that astronomers “worry that people won’t be thrilled by looking through a telescope,” he said. “But there’s something really special about seeing the sky with your own eyes.”