Despite the ongoing hunt for Planet Nine and general dissatisfaction with Pluto’s decline more than a decade ago, there are still only eight planets in our solar system. You’ve probably seen diagrams of the solar system that put the planets in nice, neat lines, but the truth is that they are often on the other side of the sun from Earth. We happen to experience a period during which all the planets are visible, much without a telescope. You just need to know where and when to look.
mercury: The planet closest to the sun looks like a bright yellowish star in the sky. You can currently spot Mercury without the aid of a telescope for the rest of this year early in the morning just before dawn in the eastern sky. It will be brightest next week or so.
Venus: The sister planet on Earth has been visible so far and will continue to shine in the sky until the end of the year. Its proximity and size usually make it the brightest planet seen from Earth. Although there were times in 2020 when you could see it more clearly, you can still spot Venus if you get up early in the morning. Just look west before dawn and there should be the brightest object.
The Earth: Look down.
Mars: You may have noticed Mars in the sky recently and didn’t understand what it is. Recently, the planet passes very close to Earth, which is why NASA launched the Perseverance mission in the summer. Mars appears as an orange-yellow point of light in the eastern sky (see above), beginning early in the evening and lasting almost until dawn. It is getting darker now (and approaching the constellation Pisces), but it should still be visible to the naked eye by the end of the year.
Jupiter and Saturn: The largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter, is too far away to overshadow the inner planets, but still shines like a silver star in the sky at the moment. In fact, an event known as a great relationship is coming up, when Jupiter and Saturn are very close to each other, something that happens every 20 years or so. Saturn is harder to see (this is a yellow point), but both planets will appear high in the southwest sky in the evening, but they will fall below the horizon only a few hours later. The relationship reaches its peak next month, so watch out for that.
Uranium: We are now going quite far in the solar system and many people will not be able to see Uranus without a telescope. It’s still there. He will appear in the evening sky between Mars (see above) and the bucket-shaped star cluster Pleiades.
Neptune: This is another difficult-to-see planet, but it will be there in the evening sky for the rest of the year and in early 2021. To find Neptune, look south for the constellation Aquarius an hour or two after sunset. With binoculars or a telescope, Neptune should be seen as a pale bluish dot in the group of stars.
And that completes our tour of the solar system. While many consider Pluto to be an honorary planet, it and all other objects in the Kuiper Belt are too small and far away to be visible without powerful telescopes.