Driftless Dark Skies: Spring Planets

April 3rd, 2017 by John Heasley

You can see all five classical planets this month. A telescope lets you enjoy more of the details. Binoculars help you spot them. But you can see all five with your eyes alone. 

Mercury makes its best appearance of 2017 in the evening sky of early April. The innermost planet is a challenge because it never appears too far from the Sun. Find a place with a clear western horizon and scan for it with your binoculars. Best time is between 8:15 and 8:45 the first week of April. It will be the brightest object in that part of the sky. 

Mars is also low in the western sky after sunset though not as bright as Mercury. It’s far from Earth this spring, so you won’t see much detail. Binoculars will bring out its ruddy complexion.  Watch for Mars the third week of April when it passes by the Pleiades star cluster low in the WNW. You should be able to see them together in your binoculars. Best time to look is between 9:00 and 9:30. Check back on the evenings of April 27 and 28 to see the waxing crescent Moon pass close by Mars in the west after sunset. Best time to look is between 8:30 and 9:00. Don’t be confused by a slightly brighter orangey star to the left of Mars. That’s Aldebaran. Remember that stars twinkle. Planets don’t. 

Jupiter will be much easier to find. It’s in opposition this month which means that it’s at its closest to Earth and brightest in the sky. Sun, Earth, and Jupiter are in a straight line, so it rises in the east as the Sun is setting in the west, passes high in the south at midnight, and sets in the west as the Sun is rising in the east. With a small telescope, you can see its cloud bands and four largest moons. Watch for Jupiter on April 10 when it travels across the sky close to the Full Moon. 

Saturn rises after midnight and can be seen in the south around 5am. It will be the brightest object in that part of the sky. On the morning of April 16, look for the waning gibbous Moon just to the right of Saturn. The next morning, the moon will be just to the left of Saturn. A small telescope will give you a memorable view of its rings. 

Venus was bright and brilliant all fall and winter in the southwestern sky. This spring, you can find Venus low in the eastern sky before sunrise. On April 23, Venus and the waning crescent moon make a stunning pair between 5:00 and 5:30. 

There will be stargazing with telescope and binoculars at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on April 29 as part of Spring Fling.   

Enjoy your spring tour of our solar system! 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.