How you can see 5 planets, no telescope required
Get ready to spot Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars — and grab binoculars if you can
The night sky is just bursting with planets.
It's the perfect time of the year to do some planet hunting. If you have sharp eyes, you will be able to spot five in the same night.
The fun starts just after sunset.
Mercury can be a challenging target. Because it's so close to the sun, it's often lost in its glare. Also, because the tiny planet is only visible near the sun, it can only be seen after sunset or before sunrise. It can easily get lost in the murk that often occurs along the horizon.
On July 15, Mercury sets just more than an hour after the sun, so you have some time to find it. Here's the best part: you'll have a crescent moon to use as a guide.
First, try to get somewhere high. If you're in a city, you're not going to have much luck finding it. Try going to a park with a hill and an unobstructed view of the western horizon.
The moon will be only be roughly 10 per cent illuminated, forming a beautifully thin crescent in the west next to Venus.
From there, Mercury is about 15 degrees lower and to the right. You can use your fingers to measure the distance.
You can continue to view Mercury for the following week, but as it gets closer to the sun, it will be much harder to see.
(You can find the rise and set times for the planets in your town or city using the site timeanddate.com.)
If you're using binoculars, remember to never, ever point them directly at the sun.
You can't miss Venus. You've likely already noticed the planet in the western sky just after sunset.
Venus is so bright, oftentimes it's mistaken for a plane or even a UFO. When it's visible, the planet is the brightest object in the night sky.
Like Mercury, its orbit is closer to the sun than Earth (these are referred to as the "inferior" planets), so Venus is visible before and after sunrise, depending on where it is in its orbit. That's why you may have heard the planet referred to as either an "evening star" or "morning star."
On July 15, the crescent moon and Venus make a gorgeous pair in the western sky. With the moon only roughly 10 per cent illuminated, it's easy to spot the "evening star" just two degrees to the left of it. Actually, if you want to give yourself a challenge, on this day, try finding Venus before the sun sets, using the moon as a guide. You can always try and use binoculars, too, but half the fun is finding it with the naked eye.
For the next few months, you can find Venus in the sky after sunset, though it will be lower on the horizon as the days go on. By October, it will disappear for a couple of months. It will emerge again as a "morning star" in the new year.
The king of our solar system has been dominant in the sky since April.
Now you can find Jupiter, which is usually second-brightest to Venus, high in the southwest after sunset.
On the night of the 15th, if you have a chance, look at Jupiter with a pair of binoculars; 7x50s would be best, but you can try with whatever you have.
Don't expect to see details, but you can see four of the planet's largest moons: Callisto, Ganymede, Io and Europa.
Moving inward, Callisto will be the farthest out of the four Galilean moons, to the "west" or left of the planet, followed by Ganymede. Then Io and Europa follow, much closer to Jupiter (you may not be able to spot Europa as it will be quite close to Jupiter).
Go outside the next day and look again. You will see the moons have moved position. On the 16th, Callisto and Io are on the left of the planet, with Ganymede and Europa to the right.
Saturn, the ringed beauty, also joins Jupiter in the southern sky. After sunset, look to the south and you'll notice a "star" that is somewhat dimmer than Jupiter. That's Saturn.
The planet is positioned in the south right above the "teapot" of the constellation Sagittarius.
If you happen to look at it through binoculars, it won't be the planet that wows you, but the multitude of stars. That's because Saturn lies in one of the richest parts of our night sky — the thickest part of the Milky Way.
Well, Mars is the big star this month (so to speak) and will continue to be so into August. It is the closest and brightest it's been since August 2003. Earlier this month it even outshone Jupiter (but not by a lot).
But there's a global dust storm going on at Mars, and it's not quite clear how it will affect its brightness.
You can find the Red Planet blazing a brilliant red in the southeastern sky. It will rise just after 10 p.m. ET in the east. It will continue to get higher in the sky, as it rises earlier. Go and take a look: it is roughly five times brighter than normal.
If you're ever looking at the sky wondering what exactly it is you're seeing, there are great apps for both Androids and iPhones to help, including Sky Safari, Sky View, Star Walk and Stellarium (fee). They allow you to point your phone at the sky and identify objects. Tap and you can learn more about the object.
And here's an added bonus to your planet viewing: the annual Perseid meteor shower is set to peak on Aug. 13, with only five per cent of the moon illuminated. With the planets, it should be quite a show. Mark your calendars!