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Astro Bob: See 5 planets line up after sunset

Five planets form a line in the western sky the next few nights. Here's how to find them.

Venus at dusk
Venus is the one planet you'll find with ease this week. Mars is no problem either. But the remaining three โ€” Jupiter, Mercury and Uranus โ€” will take more effort and good timing.
Contributed / Bob King

Planets are like kids. They like running around. And when you get a group of them together they turn into a force of nature. This week five of the planets will gather in the western sky shortly after sundown and compel some people to look up. If you're one of them, read on.

Timing and location are important. You'll need a place with an unobstructed view to the west and to be out watching between 25 and 40 minutes after sunset. If you arrive an hour after sunset, Mercury and Jupiter will have set already. Find your local sunset time with timeanddate.com/sun and plan accordingly. For many of us, the sun goes down around 7:30, so 8 p.m. is a good ballpark estimate of when to watch. Also, be sure to bring binoculars.

5 planets
Five planets form a line in the western sky a half-hour or so after sunset on Tuesday night, March 28. The faintest, Uranus, I left as an open circle because you'll need binoculars to spot it. You'll also need binoculars to see Mercury and Jupiter. While both are bright planets, they're close to the horizon and fight twilight. Jupiter will become much more difficult to spot later in the week and soon leave the scene, while the other planets will stick around for some time.
Contributed / Bob King

Now face west. Venus should be obvious about 30 degrees (three fists) high straight in front of you. Compared to the other planets it's a brilliant bull's-eye. Next, take your binoculars and carefully focus Venus to a point. Then put the planet off to the left side of the center of view and slowly lower the binoculars towards the horizon. Just before you "hit bottom" you should see two "stars" fighting the bright glow of twilight. The lower one is Jupiter and the upper one Mercury.

On March 28, they'll be just 1.5 degrees apart and fit in the same field of view. Jupiter is departing the evening sky, while Mercury is just now entering it. By early April it will much easier to see when it climbs higher above the horizon.

Jupiter, Moon and Venus
On March 23, 2023 Venus paired with the crescent moon at dusk while Jupiter shone very low in the twilight glow. Mercury and Jupiter will appear just 1.5ยฐ apart similarly close to the horizon on March 28.
Contributed / Bob King

Let's see. That's three planets. Time to take a break and wait for the sky to darken. Starting around 8:30-9 p.m. (in late twilight) find dazzling Venus again. Then tilt your head back and look five fists above and left of the planet to spot reddish Mars. On Tuesday night, March 28, the half-moon will make itself useful and guide you directly to the Red Planet โ€” Mars sits just a few degrees below and right of the moon.

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Venus passes Uranus
Over the next few nights you can watch Venus approach and then pass Uranus. Use binoculars and look near the end of twilight when Venus is still easy visible at the same time the sky is mostly dark. I connected the stars in the vicinity of the planet into a sort of smiley face to help you find it. Uranus sits at one end of the smile.
Contributed / Stellarium with additions by Bob King

Just as the moon helped us find Mars, Venus will guide us to Uranus. But you'll need to know exactly where to look so you can tell the planet apart from several similarly bright stars nearby. From March 28-31, Uranus and Venus will appear together in the same binocular field of view. Just aim and focus on Venus, and use the map to pinpoint Uranus. On March 28, Venus and Uranus are 2.5 degrees apart. Their separation shrinks to a minimum of 1.2 degrees on March 30 and then increases to 2 degrees on March 31.

Venus and Uranus March 26 2023 B S.jpg
Venus shines near Uranus on March 26 as seen through a 150mm telephoto lens. Venus is nearly 10,000 times brighter than the distant planet.
Contributed / Bob King

Uranus moves up and to the east during this time just like Venus but because it's almost 2 billion miles (3 billion km) away, it barely budges from a binocular standpoint.

While you'll have to do spread your observing over two shifts โ€” one shortly after sunset and another during late twilight โ€” I'm confident that with clear skies you'll see all five of the planets playing their favorite game โ€” hide-and-seek.

"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at nightsky55@gmail.com.
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