Now that skies have cleared and it looks like we're set for several clear nights ahead, it's a great opportunity for backyard stargazers to put another planet - and maybe four - under their belts. Be sure to take the kids.
If you've never seen Mercury - the most elusive of the naked-eye planets - now is about as good a chance as you'll get this year - at least without having to rip yourself out of bed before sunrise on a cold November day. The nearest planet to the sun, Mercury is approaching what astronomers call its greatest eastern "elongation," on June 20.
It's pretty simple: Mercury orbits so close to the sun - one-third of Earth's distance from old Sol - that from our perspective it always appears near the sun. The problem is, you can't see it because of the sun's glare - it's daylight, after all. So, stargazers wait until Mercury's orbit carries it as far as possible from the sun, to one side or the other, then look for it just after sunset, or just before sunrise, when the sun's thermonuclear "fires" are hidden below the horizon.
Right now, Mercury is nearing it's farthest distance (elongation) east of the sun, which means it sets after the sun goes down. And it remains visible for a time, low in the western sky, after the sun has set and skies have darkened.
Look for it this week and next, beginning about 20 minutes after sunset, which is now at about 8:30 p.m. EDT. Mercury will appear as star-like point of light, just a bit to the right of due west, and about 12 degrees above the horizon (the width of your fist held at arm's length). If it's not too hazy or smoggy, the tiny planet should be easily visible to folks with good eyesight. But binoculars may help. The best times to look will be before Tuesday, the 20th. It will fade away quickly after that.
As you're searching, it's fun to realize that NASA's Messenger mission, designed, built and controlled by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab here in Maryland, is en route to orbit and study Mercury beginning in 2011.
Just above Mercury, twinkling side by side and slightly to the right, are Castor and Pollux, two stars that represent the "heads" of the twins in the constellation Gemini. Don't confuse them with brighter Mercury.
To the left of Mercury, and a bit higher this weekend, you can also find Saturn and Mars - also the objects of ongoing orbital missions. NASA's Cassini mission is still orbiting Saturn, and has also put a lander on the surface of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The space agency also has several orbiters circing Mars, and still has two hardy rovers prowling the surface.
Mars and Saturn are separated by vast distances, of course. But from Earth's perspective this week they appear to be extraordinarily close together, barely a half-degree apart on Saturday evening. That's yellowish Saturn just below and to the left of reddish Mars. Binoculars will definitely help with this pairing. You can see them change their relative positions from night to night as they - and the Earth - follow their separate orbits.
Finally, this month is a great time to see giant Jupiter, blazing in the southeastern sky in the evening. It's the brightest star in the sky. You can't miss it. With decent binoculars and a steady hand, you should be able to make out as many as four or Jupiter's moons, lined up on either side of the planet.
If you spot all four planets, and add in the Earth, you will have seen all of the naked-eye planets except Venus (now in the morning sky before dawn) - in just one evening ! Nice going, space cadets !