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Catching Up with the Neighbors

Our sister planets are at peak display this week

This is a week for watching the planets. Mercury is emerging from the glow of twilight in its best appearance of the year. Higher above, Venus and Jupiter are drawing together on their way to an incredible conjunction. Mars reaches opposition and is at its largest and brightest for the year. Saturn’s there, too, a golden sentinel visible from 10pm until dawn.
    As darkness settles, look to the west in the sun’s wake for the solar system’s innermost planet. At magnitude –1.0, Mercury is brighter than all but a few stars, yet it is no easy target to spot. At best it climbs 20 degrees above the horizon and is never visible for more than an hour. This week is Mercury’s best evening apparition of the year. Look for the fleet planet around 6:30, when it is due west a dozen degrees above the horizon. Wednesday Mercury peaks, then retreats back toward the sun’s glare.
    High above Mercury, Venus and Jupiter command the heavens, drawing a full degree closer to one another each night. Jupiter is higher in the sky, but Venus is by far the brighter of the two. Of course this is because Venus is so much closer to both us and the sun. While they look roughly the same size in our night sky, Jupiter is almost 12 times larger than Venus, as becomes apparent when seen through even a small telescope.
    Mars reaches opposition Saturday. In the same phenomenon as full moon, at this point the earth is smack-dab in between the sun and Mars, which rises in the east at sunset and sets in the west with sunrise. Just as the moon’s opposition from the sun illuminates its face fully, Mars’s face is fully illuminated. Because of its greater distance from us, Mars appears at its best for the next week. Look for it Wednesday the 7th 10 degrees above the full moon.