If you’d like to get a look at the planets in our Solar System this year, be sure to consult this handy guide on when and where to look.
As an evening star, it’s visible in the western sky, setting about an hour after the Sun. As a morning star, it appears in the eastern sky, rising about an hour before the Sun. There must be a clear, unobstructed horizon on these occasions. Mercury usually appears as a bright “star” with a yellowish or ochre hue. Mornings from January 1 to January 6; evenings from February 20 to March 11; mornings from April 11 to May 2; evenings from June 16 to July 8; mornings from August 9 to August 24; evenings from October 12 to November 2; mornings from November 27 to December 18. Mercury will be brightest and easiest to spot in the evening sky between February 20 and March 11 and brightest and easiest to spot in the morning sky between November 27 to December 18.
Always brilliant and shining with a steady, silvery light. Evenings in the western sky at dusk from January 1 to May 27; mornings in the eastern sky at dawn from June 15 to December 31. The best time to view Venus in the evening sky in 2012 will be between the time of its greatest eastern elongation on March 27 and its greatest brilliancy on April 29. The best time to view Venus in the morning sky in 2012 will be between the time of its greatest brilliancy on July 12 and its greatest western elongation on August 15. On June 5, Venus will cross in front of the Sun’s disk, an exceedingly rare and unusual event called a “transit,” the last of its kind until December 2117. Venus will pass by Jupiter on March 15 and July 1 and will pass very close to Saturn on November 27.
Mars shines like a star with a yellowish-orange hue, and can vary considerably in brightness. Mornings from January 1 to March 2; evenings from March 3 to December 31. Mars begins the year as a very bright object near the border between the zodiacal constellations Leo and Virgo. Brightest in 2012: February 11 to March 17. Mars arrives at opposition to the Sun on March 3: rising at sunset, peaking high in the south at midnight and setting at sunup. It will also be shining at its brightest for 2012, at magnitude -1.3, just a trifle dimmer than Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Two days later, on March 5, it will be closest to Earth at 12:00 p.m. EST at a distance of 62.6 million miles. Since Mars can come as close to Earth as 34.6 million miles, this year is not a particularly close encounter. In the weeks and months following opposition, Mars will become a fixture in the evening sky, but also will be receding from Earth and consequently getting progressively fainter. By year’s end, it will be found in the constellation of Capricornus, having moved out to a distance of 207 million miles from Earth and shining just 1/10 as bright as it was in early March.
Quite brilliant with a silver white luster. It can be seen evenings from January 1 to April 21; mornings from June 3 to December 1; evenings again from December 2 to December 31. Jupiter starts the year in Pisces, crosses into Aries on January 8 and moves into Taurus on May 14, where it will remain for the balance of the year. It will be involved in an unusual triple conjunction with Aldebaran, passing this bright reddish star on July 30 and again on December 11. A third pass will come in April 2013. Brightest in 2012: November 18 to December 16. It is at opposition to the Sun on December 2. Jupiter will be near Venus on March 15 and July 1.
Shines like a yellowish-white “star” with moderate brightness. The famous rings are only visible in a telescope. They were turned edge-on (or very nearly so) toward Earth through most of 2009 and at times were quite difficult to observe. The rings have now noticeably “opened up” to view and will continue to do so as Saturn tilts more, relative to Earth, during the next few years. Saturn will spend much of 2012 in Virgo. It is in the midst of an unusual triple conjunction with Spica. Saturn passed this bright bluish star on November 14 last year and will pass it two more times, on May 21 and August 7. Saturn will cross into Libra on December 6. Mornings from January 1 to April 14; evenings from April 15 to October 8; mornings again from November 11 to December 31. Brightest in 2012: April 1 to April 29. Saturn is at opposition to the Sun on April 15. It will appear very close to Venus on November 27.
Uranus can be seen with the naked eye by people who are blessed with good eyesight and a clear, dark sky, as well as the forehand knowledge of exactly where to look for it. It shines at magnitude +5.8 and can be readily identified with good binoculars, while a small telescope may reveal its tiny, greenish disk. Uranus will start 2012 in Pisces and cross into the non-zodiacal constellation of Cetus on May 13, then loop back into Pisces on September 16, where it will remain for the rest of the year. Evenings from January 1 to March 7; mornings from April 10 to September 28; evenings again from September 29 to December 31. Brightest in 2012 on: September 15 to October 13. Uranus will be at opposition to the Sun on September 29.
Neptune spends 2012 in the constellation of Aquarius. This bluish hued world is only visible with good binoculars or a telescope.