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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Four Planets Await After Sunset

By Phil Plait

Right now, in the night sky just after sunset, you have a chance to see three alien worlds at the same time.

Venus and Uranus are currently undergoing a close encounter; tonight (March 5) they’ll be a little over a degree apart, just about three times the width of the full Moon on the sky. Below them, not far away (maybe 10° or so) is red Mars.

To see them look to the west after sunset. It’s best to wait a few minutes for the sky to get dark. Venus is pretty obvious; it’s the third brightest natural object in the sky (after the Sun and Moon). Mars is still fairly bright and easy to spot below it. Uranus, though, is just on the edge of visibility to the naked eye even from dark sites, so you’ll probably need binoculars to spot it. I found it really easy to see last night using mine.

Speaking of last night, the picture above shows Venus and Uranus when I went out to observe. In the photo, Venus is overexposed and Uranus is the dot below it. You can see that Uranus is a bluish-green, too! That’s cool. Venus is a smaller planet, but far closer—about 200 million kilometers away versus Uranus’ 3.1 billion km distance. All told, in the sky Venus looks about 10,000 times brighter than its more distant cousin. Mars, incidentally, is about 340 million km away right now. It’s also smaller than Venus, so looks dimmer, too.

All three were easily visible even in short exposures with my camera (a Canon T4i using a 55-250 mm zoom). Here’s a nice shot I got last night:

It’s a 10-second exposure, so you can see some trailing in the stars and planets due to Earth’s rotation. But Venus and Uranus are visible to the upper left, Mars below them near the bottom of the frame, and a few of the brighter stars in the constellation of Pisces. If you have a camera, give it a shot! I literally propped mine up on a table and just took a bunch of exposures at different settings. It was also -14 C out, so don’t complain.

And hey—if you count the tree in the foreground, then you can see four planets in that picture! Not bad for a quick and dirty (and cold) photo session.

I hope you have clear skies tonight. This is a pretty nice scene to see. And when you’re done, turn around! The Moon rises around 6:30 p.m. local time, with Jupiter high above it, and the bright star Regulus (in Leo) between them.

The show is all over the sky. Go look!

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