Christmas Day can be exhausting. All that food. All that excitement. All that sitting around watching TV. However, if you need to get outside for an hour this Sunday then wait until sunset because a parade of all bright five naked-eye planets—and, as a bonus, a beautifully slim crescent Moon—is waiting for you outside. It was last seen in summer.
But you’ll need to be quick to catch it.
All you need is good timing, a clear sky and, for two of the planets, a clear view to the southwest.
The planetary parade
Going from southwest to east you’ll be able to see these planets (and the Moon), in this order:
- Crescent Moon
Finding Mercury and Venus
Look to the southwestern sky right about 30 minutes after sunset and you’ll see the bright planet Venus, shining unmistakably. It will be an easy naked eye sight if you have a clear enough view low to the southwestern horizon. Just above it will be Mercury. It will be relatively easy to see with the naked eye, although binoculars may help.
You need to be quick with these two planets. As inner planets—from our point of view on Earth—Mercury and Venus are always relatively close to the Sun. So once it’s set, it’s a race against time to see them before they sink into the horizon. You’ve got about 30 minutes to make these observations.
What you’ll notice is that Venus is incredibly bright. Was it the “Christmas Star”—or “Star of Bethlehem”—of the nativity story? Very possibly. It appears fleetingly, but is always very bright and very low on the horizon. Ideal, then, for a sudden appearance that seems to hang above a distant location.
Finding the crescent Moon
Not difficult! Right above Mercury and Venus, but slightly southwest, you’ll see a beautifully slender waxing crescent Moon. Just 9%-illuminated by the sun under the horizon, it will be just three days old. Look on its unlit side and you’ll notice the glow of “Earthshine” slightly illuminating its surface. That’s sunlight reflecting back off Earth’s daytime side onto the lunar surface.
Finding Saturn, Jupiter and Mars
Follow a line from Venus through the Moon and, roughly speaking, you’ll come to Saturn. Although you might think it would be recognizable because of its rings, it’s actually very small and dim at the moment. It’s probably the hardest planet to find of all five because it just looks like a star. Use the chart above and you should find it.
The other two planets are very easy to find. Jupiter is high in the south—due south just after sunset—and dominating that area of the night sky. Meanwhile, Mars is shining brightly due east as twilight thickens. The red planet’s brightest-for-two-years “opposition” was just a couple weeks ago, so it will shine brightly for many weeks to come.
The ultimate parade of planets
On September 8, 2040 comes an ultra-rare “golden conjunction” of planets when Mars, Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Jupiter will be visible in the same 10º patch of the night sky right after sunset in the west.
That’s one for your long-term calendar—along with a whopping six-minute total solar eclipse in Florida on August 12, 2045!
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.