Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Dance of the Planets

Stargazing

Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter are all going to be in the same part of the eastern morning sky together, joined for a short time by a thin Crescent Moon.

By David Reneke

What’s in the night sky this month?

Armed with your binoculars, find a nice dark place away from the glare of the street lights. Pick a comfy spot and wait about 5-10 minutes to allow your eyes to adapt to the darkness. See that band of stars stretching across the sky from one side to the other? That’s the Milky Way, full of more stars than you can count.

Search along the Milky Way with your binoculars and watch for ‘fuzzy’ patches. Stop and have a look, you might have found a rich star cluster or a gassy nebula. While you’re at it look a little to the right of the Southern Cross. It’s a rich area for sky spotting or panning so move slowly OK.

Rising in the East after sunset is beautiful Saturn with its rings starting to open. Amazing in any size telescope, look for a yellowish ‘star’ about halfway above the horizon. In the morning, before sunrise that bright ‘star’ you can see above the Eastern horizon is really the planet Venus, commonly called the ‘morning star.’ Heard of it?

Through a telescope Venus will show you phases, just like the Moon, and you’ll notice it appears fuzzy. Well, that’s about as good as it gets. Thankfully, there’s nothing wrong with your telescope.

Now, get set for a rare event because your view of the pre dawn sky from May 1st onwards should be spectacular. It’s an alignment of the planets, astronomers call them conjunctions and they don’t happen all that often!

The four well known planets Mercury, Venus, Mars and giant Jupiter are all going to be in the same part of the eastern morning sky together, joined for a short time by a thin Crescent Moon. They’re best observed from around an hour or so before sunrise until the sky starts to brighten and will all be closest on May 12th.

Very close conjunctions are just a grand naked eye spectacle and great to try and photograph. Bracket your shots though and use a tripod. It can be very exciting to see more than one planet in the same field of view of your telescope. Good luck!

David Reneke is one of Australia’s leading astronomers, lecturers and teachers. He’s a feature writer for Australasian Science magazine and a science correspondent for ABC and commercial radio. Get David’s free astronomy newsletter at www.davidreneke.com