Three bright planets now decorate our sky at nightfall.
One, brilliant Venus, rises about 90 minutes after the sunset.
The second, Mars, although high in the south then, is fading.
The third planet is ascending in the eastern sky and is at its prime for observation. This planet is the most amazing of all to see through a telescope: Saturn.
Saturn at brightest and biggest of year: If you can find due east - where the sun rises at this time of year - you should be able to find Saturn. Go outside about 60 to 90 minutes after sunset and the brightest point of light you will see low in that direction will be Saturn. A little later, the star Spica will appear low in the east, almost straight below Saturn but well below it. Saturn currently shines noticeably brighter than Spica. You can also distinguish them by the fact that Saturn shines steadily while Spica, like all stars, twinkles.
Saturn is the second-biggest planet (only Jupiter is larger) but it is very distant. Now, however, is the time that Saturn is closest to Earth for the year and therefore looks a little brighter and also a little bigger in telescopes than at any time in 2010. What's happening is that Earth is drawing even with much slower Saturn in their race around their orbits. That means there is a line of Sun-Earth-Saturn in space so that Saturn is in the exact opposite direction from the sun in the sky - an arrangement called opposition. In other words, Saturn rises at about sunset, is highest at about midnight, and does not set until about sunrise.
Spring of the nearly edge-on rings: Of course, what everyone wants to see of Saturn is its truly breathtaking rings, something you need a telescope to do.
Unfortunately, this year and last year were the first in about 15 years that the lovely rings have been oriented in their least-tilted position relative to Earth. The rings may not be as visually stunning as usual but the sight of them - so narrow from a side view that they look like bars of light - is still unusual and fascinating. I will talk more about seeing Saturn's rings and moons in an upcoming column during a week when everyone in southern New Jersey who doesn't have a telescope can get a free view at one of our local state parks.
The moon and the other two planets: The moon is brightening, its phase thickening all this week, on its way to reaching full moon Monday at 10:25 p.m. Last week, the moon was a crescent when it was located fairly near Venus. On Wednesday, the moon is well to the right of orange-gold Mars and on Thursday, is well to the lower left of the moon. The moon is considerably far to the right of Saturn this Sunday and far to the upper left of the full moon Monday.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: