Stargazers have complained much over the past month or so about the absence of bright observable planets in the evening sky. Jupiter is setting in the twilight glow after sunset, its banded disk and four bright satellites now largely lost in atmospheric turbulence. And Mars doesn’t rise until late evening, still appearing fairly small in the telescope as we slowly comes closer to it. But November’s predawn sky is another story! Four bright planets can be seen there this month for those who don’t mind rising early, with the scene graced part of the time by a lovely crescent Moon.
Stepping out doors about 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise in early November and facing southeast, skywatchers will be greeted by the following three planets in ascending order above the horizon. Mercury is lowest, appearing to the upper left of the bright star Spica. Your Celestron SkyMaster binoculars from Edmund (#30311-02) will show both objects in the same view, while telescopes as small as the Scientifics’ 60mm refractor (#30823-61) will reveal its little pinkish disk about half-illuminated at magnifications of 75x or more if the air is steady.
Much higher in the sky is radiant Venus, the bright “Morning Star.” On November 5th, the crescent Moon illuminated by “Earthshine” will approach very close to the right of the planet, providing a stunning sight for both the unaided eye and binoculars. Telescopes will show the planet’s gibbous-shaped silvery disk at 50x or more.
Still higher in the sky is the golden ringed-planet Saturn, southeast of the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo. Its magnificent ice-ring system can be seen in the smallest of telescopes at magnifications of 30x and higher. After appearing wide open to us for the past several years, the rings are now “closing up” to their next edge-on apparition in September of 2009, at which time they will disappear briefly in all but the largest telescopes. (Interestingly, when Galileo first saw Saturn through his relatively primitive glass, he described it as looking like three bodies in a row touching each other or a cup with “handles.” However, when he again looked at it several years later he was quite perplexed, for the handles had disappeared — the rings had gone edge-on!)
There’s still a fourth planet visible in the morning sky and that’s Mars, mentioned above. But to see it you’ll need to look southwest instead of southeast. There you’ll find it positioned nearly overhead in the constellation Gemini, shining with a steady ruddy-orange glow. A telescope at 100x or more will reveal its small disk and perhaps also one of its polar ice caps if the atmosphere is steady. It continues to rise earlier each night in the evening sky and grow brighter, as it approaches opposition to the Sun in late December and is then closest to us.
So there you have it — four bright planets visible before dawn. And if you add in Jupiter in the evening sky, that’s all five of the classical naked-eye planets in one night!
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine and author of five books on stargazing.