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Catch the Naked-Eye Five

How many planets can you spot?

The waxing crescent moon and Mercury appear low in the west-southwest after sunset Thursday. While the moon is easy to spot, Mercury is 10 degrees lower, buried amid twilight’s glow. Your chance to catch the innermost planet hinges between its own setting, around 6:45, and the sun’s glare, which doesn’t give way to full darkness until 7pm. Scanning the horizon with a pair of binoculars will help. And while the waxing moon moves on, Mercury gets easier to see the next few weeks in its best apparition of the year.
    Friday the crescent moon aligns almost directly below the next two brightest objects in the night sky: Venus and Jupiter. Saturday the waxing crescent shines within three degrees of Venus — less than half the size of your fist held at arm’s length. Then Sunday the moon pulls within five degrees of Jupiter.
    Venus and Jupiter are about 20 degrees apart, but they are drawing closer together — by about one degree each night — on their way to a fantastic pairing in mid-March. Venus is closer to the horizon, and there should be no confusing the two, as the Evening Star shines nearly eight times brighter than old Jove. Venus sets roughly two hours after the sun, while Jupiter sets around 11pm.
    Shortly after sunset, Mars rises in the east. It’s growing bigger and brighter as it nears opposition — its point directly opposite the sun — March 3. Shining red-orange, Mars is visible all night but is at its highest in the south around 1am.
    Saturn, the fifth and last of the naked-eye planets, rises in the east around 10pm. While the second-largest planet in the solar system, Saturn is the least bright. Above and a half-dozen degrees to the right is Spica, a little dimmer but a distinct blue-white compared to Saturn’s golden glow.