December 22, 2022: Not until 2036 are five planets visible simultaneously. From the sunset point, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars line up from the southwest to the east-northeast.
by Jeffrey L. Hunt
Chicago, Illinois: Sunrise, 7:15 a.m. CST; Sunset, 4:23 pm CST. Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.
Daylight has reached the shortest time interval for the year, nine hours, eight minutes. Latest sunrise time (7:18 am CST) begins on the 28thth and lasts through January 10th.
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot’s transit times, when it is in the center of the planet in the southern hemisphere: 1:59 UT, 11:55 UT, 21:50 UT. Convert the time to your time zone. In the US, subtract five hours for EST, six hours for CST, and so on. Use a telescope to see the spot. Times are from Sky & Telescope warehouse.
A rare sighting of the five bright planets occurs after sunset during the next week. Dim planets Uranus and Neptune are in the sky as well, but not seen as easily as the bright five worlds.
Planets resemble stars to the unaided eye. Venus is the brightest, followed by Jupiter and Mars. Mercury’s brightness varies greatly as it rapidly moves from morning visibility to the evening sky. It is fourth brightest followed by Saturn. The Ringed Wonder is brighter than most of the stars in the sky tonight, but it is a challenge to see during early twilight. Perhaps the best evening to see the worlds is the 26thth when the moon is near Saturn, pointing the way to it. During the next few clear evenings look for them until the moon gives a cue to Saturn’s location.
Five planets are not visible again simultaneously until mid-April of 2036. On those evenings, the order from the sunset point is Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and Saturn. They span only 88° at their closest.
The next time the planets are in their planetary order from the sun is early May, 2100. At the highly-touted 2040 display, Mercury sets only 13 minutes after the sun, followed by Venus about 25 minutes after sunset. This display is likely not visible for sky watchers at mid-northern latitudes.
Here is today’s planet forecast:
The morning sky has no bright planets. The moon is near the New moon phase and not easily visible until it appears with Venus and Mercury in two evenings. The moon begins the next lunar cycle tomorrow at 4:17 am CST.
Meanwhile, several bright stars are in the sky this morning. Looking westward at an hour before sunrise, four bright stars make an arc, resembling an umbrella above the horizon.
Capella, the brightest of the four, is nearly 20° up in the west-northwest. Castor and Pollux, above the west-northwest horizon, are higher than Capella. Procyon, slightly lower than Capella, is in the west-southwest.
Capella is near Mars and Aldebaran, but the planet and Taurus’ brightest star are below the western horizon at this hour. Look for it this evening when the sky is dark enough to see the dimmer stars.
The five bright planets are visible spanning the sky after sunset.
First find a location that has a good view of the sky from the southwest to the east-northeast, especially toward the southwest. A hilltop or elevated structure provides a good view across any potential obstructions. Start looking about 30 minutes after sunset. At that time Venus is nearly 5° above the southwestern horizon. It is to the right or north of the southwest point. A compass, traditional or digital as on a smartphone, may help locate the direction of the planet. Venus is bright enough to be seen without an optical assist at this level of twilight. Initially use a binocular to find it. Then look for it without the assistance.
Mercury is 5.0° to the upper left of Venus and in the same binocular field of view with the Evening Star, when Venus is placed towards the lower right edge of the field. Can you see Mercury without binoculars?
Tag Venus and Mercury with a tree or a distant landmark. Finding a planet and then referencing its location against a terrestrial feature allows you to find it a few minutes later. Furthermore, it helps you show others where to look for it. For example, “When you stand here, you can see Mercury about halfway up the right side of that pine tree that’s next to the water tower.”
At this time look for Jupiter about halfway up in the south-southeast and Mars about 20° above the east-northeast horizon.
The challenging one is Saturn. It is about 30° to the upper left of Mercury and the same distance above the south-southwest horizon. It is less than halfway to Jupiter from Mercury.
As the sky darkens during the next 10 minutes, continue to look for Venus and Mercury. They are lower in the southwest. Occasionally, look for Jupiter and Mars. Try to see Saturn before Venus sets or disappears behind a distant feature on the horizon.
Each evening, Venus is higher after sunset and the sighting window is longer.
Step outside again about two hours after sunset and look east. Mars is nearly halfway up in the sky and 8.2° to the upper left of Aldebaran.
Mars continues to retrograde until January 12th. It passes Aldebaran in four evenings. When the planet returns to its eastward motion, it passes the star again on January 30th.
Use a binocular to spot the Pleiades star cluster to the upper right of Mars. The blue stars resemble a miniature dipper. Through the binoculars a few dozen stars are visible. Next look for the Hyades cluster. With Aldebaran, the Hyades outline the head of Taurus.
With its horns – Elnath and Zeta Tauri – lowered, the Bull seems as though it is about to charge, but it seems to move westward as Earth rotates during the night, making Taurus back up into the sky.