We currently have the best of planets in our night sky for astronomy! For the next couple weeks, I want to take a detailed look at each one with you.
Let’s start by finding and identifying them. Watching the sky after sunset you may be noticing the brightest star that appears over the western horizon during twilight. This “star” is actually the planet Venus! The word planet actually means wandering star because the planets appear to move amongst the stars. Venus is quickly disappearing so much so it's hard to see right now because it is really close to the sun. With the mountains on our western horizon it makes it extra difficult.
Now, drawing an imaginary line south east in the sky from Venus you should run in to another bright ‘star’. This is not as bright as Venus but usually the second point of light that comes out during twilight. This is another planet, Jupiter. Jupiter is currently near a fairly faint star with a really fun name- Zubenelgenubi (I say it zoo-bin-L-gha-new-bee, but you may say anything fun you want). This star represents the southern end of the balance beam of Libra. Now as the reader of a paper you might be familiar with the constellation Libra from the horoscope section and that’s no coincidence. If we look back at Venus we see it too is near a bright star Spica. Spica is the brightest star in Virgo, another constellation you might find a horoscope for. Spica is currently appears closer to the sun than Venus so it will be extra hard to see.
Let's take this line we drew connecting Venus and Jupiter and continue it on. You should also see an obvious red dot of light appearing in the south east, this is Mars. Let’s arch this line a little and put Mars on the line too. Almost halfway between Mars and Jupiter (a little closer to Mars than Jupiter) on this line you might see another brighter light, this is Saturn. If you have dark skies and some imagination you might see a constellation that resembles a teapot below Saturn. This “teapot” was originally seen as an archer, and named Sagittarius. Next to Mars you’re going to need a lot of imagination (or beer) for this but you might make out a horned goat, Capricorn. If you’re following along with the horoscope section you may of noticed I missed Scorpio which currently has no planets but has a truly red star Antares (which means Mars’s rival) that is about halfway between Saturn and Jupiter on this line.
This line connecting all the planets is a very special line we call the ecliptic. The ecliptic simply is the plane of our solar system therefore this line is the only place you will find planets. You can complete the ecliptic, as it circles around the Earth, if you keep drawing the line below your feet and circle the line back to Venus. The Sun and Moon are also on this line! This line is so important, every constellation it passes through is in the zodiac. That’s what the zodiac is for, to denote the plane of the solar system in the sky (not just to fill up the paper). The constellations of the zodiac are therefore the only constellations that are ever visited by planets.
Let’s go back to Jupiter next to Zubenelgenubi. Zubenelgenubi is the part of the balance beam of Libra. So, we can say Jupiter is in Libra. All of the planets, the Sun, and the Moon can be said to be in a certain constellation of the zodiac.
For the next month we will look in detail at each one of these planets along the ecliptic moving west to east in the sky. Check back here next week to learn more about Venus.