Home Local Stargazers and astronomy buffs: How to view five planets and other celestial marvels during the holidays

Stargazers and astronomy buffs: How to view five planets and other celestial marvels during the holidays

by staff

While last-minute holiday shopping or enjoying outdoor light displays this week, take a moment to look up at the sky to witness a series of potentially breathtaking celestial events as December comes to a close.

Five planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — are expected to be visible at the same time briefly in the evening from Friday through New Year’s Eve.

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“You’ll see all five visible planets and the moon will be there too, kind of skirting its way throughout that week,” said Michelle Nichols, director of public observing at the Adler Planetarium.

They’re the five brightest planets, often dubbed the “naked eye planets” because they’re easily visible without a telescope or binoculars under the right conditions. Nichols added that technically Uranus might be seen without the aid of technology but only under an extremely dark sky, and even then it’s quite dim. Viewing Neptune always requires binoculars or a telescope.

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To get a glimpse of all five planets simultaneously, Nichols suggests heading outside around 5 p.m., about a half-hour after sunset. Mercury and Venus will be over to the southwest and Saturn will be up and to the left of Mercury and Venus. Jupiter will be up and to the left of Saturn, with Mars to the east.

“Mars will be orange,” she said. “That will be the one that will stand out for its color. Jupiter will be really bright. Venus will be even brighter. You’ll be able to able to see all five for about a half-hour.”

Saturn, Jupiter and Mars will likely linger longer than Mercury and Venus, which will be low, to the southwest.

“We’ll lose those first,” Nichols said. “But the other three will remain up for a decent chunk of the night.”

While no particular viewing location is necessary, she recommended a spot with less light pollution and few high buildings or tall trees.

The simultaneous appearance of all naked planets is “not common but it’s also not an every-10,000-years kind of thing,” Nichols said.

In June, the five planets were visible in alignment in orbital order from the sun, a rare event that won’t occur again until 2040.

Through about Christmas Eve, stargazers who stay up late can also witness the annual Ursid meteor shower, which peaks on Wednesday, which is the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year.

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Nichols said to go outside, face northeast and look up. Viewing gets better “closer to midnight” and best after midnight, she said.

Meteors usually originate from comets, which are basically chunks of dusty ice left over from the formation of the solar system billions of years ago, Nichols said.

“Think of them as dusty, dirty icebergs,” she said. “When they get close to the sun, the sun heats them up and some of the material from the comet — bits of ice, dust what have you — comes off the comet.”

A meteor shower occurs “when the Earth passes through a region having a great concentration of debris, such as particles left by a comet,” according to the New York-based nonprofit American Meteor Society.

When the debris burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere, this looks like dazzling streaks of light across the sky.

Nichols said Ursid refers to the constellation Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, as meteor showers are typically named for the constellation in the sky from which they appear to radiate.

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Another annual celestial event to glimpse is the winged-horse constellation Pegasus, which will be visible throughout December. The main portion of the constellation is four stars in the shape of a square, forming the center portion of the horse’s body, Nichols said.

“Looking high in the southwest sky on December evenings, you can find a constellation named for one of the more fantastical beasts of ancient mythology,” NASA’s website said. “That’s Pegasus, the winged horse. In Greek myth, Pegasus rode into adventures with the hero Belaraphon, and later carried the thunderbolts of Zeus himself, who rewarded him by placing him among the stars.”

Pegasus is the seventh largest of the 88 constellations, according to NASA.

“With this year drawing to a close, here’s hoping you seek out the winged stallion Pegasus, as you ponder what new adventures await in the next year,” the agency’s website added.

eleventis@chicagotribune.com

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