What you will see on a clear night in
Solar System: Venus, Mercury and The Moon
Special Event: Venus-Mercury conjunction between March 15 to 18
Major Planetary Show: Wow! A rare display of the solar
system’s hottest planets: VENUS and MERCURY will appear as “stars” low
in the western horizon. Between March 15 and 18, Venus (see photo) will
be lower left of Mercury. The key to seeing the solar system’s hottest
planets is to locate a spot where you will have a clear view of the
If you can’t see the western horizon because of trees and houses, have your parents drive you to Wilmot Line, a road that branches off Erb st., just past the Waterloo landfill. From there you will have a clear view of the two planets provided you arrive shortly after dark as the planets will disappear.
15-to-18 window is the best time to see Mercury. After March 18,
Mercury will drop as it nears the Sun; by March 30, it will be below
the horizon. VENUS, which is brighter than MERCURY because it is
larger, will climb throughout March and April as it moves away from the
Venus’s day is longer than its year! During its 225-day trip around the Sun, it hasn't quite rotated around once on its axis; it requires another 18 days. Venus is referred to as our sister planet since the two are similar in size. Mercury’s year, the shortest of any planet, takes only 88 days.
The most dramatic of all constellations, ORION THE HUNTER, is visible in the south-southwest with his 3-star belt around his waist. Upper left of his belt and lower right are his shoulders. Lower left and lower right are his knees.
Orion is a must-see night sky object. Hanging from the Hunter's belt is his sword. In fact, the sword is THE GREAT ORION NEBULA - the only star nursery that can be spotted with the naked eye.
This fuzzy star zone can be seen well with a pair of binoculars. A telescope will produce a fantastic close-up of new stars!
Orion is a good guidepost to other stars. That very bright star that you will spot lower left of the constellation is SIRIUS, the brightest star in the night sky.
By late April Orion will almost disappear as it heads west. Why is Orion relocating to different parts of the sky? Most constellations move from east to west as the Earth rotates around the Sun. Constellations such as Orion, which are well below the NORTH STAR, disappear below the horizon during a portion of the day.
Can you see another fuzzy group of stars upper right of Orion? That's THE PLEIADES star cluster that looks similar to the bowl of the Big Dipper through binoculars. Even though you'll be able to pick out half a dozen stars, the Pleiades actually consist of about 500 stars!
The most popular group of stars is the BIG DIPPER. Look north and you'll spot the four-star bowl with its three-star handle.
The seven-star Big Dipper is in the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear). The Big Dipper is a well-known group of stars as it can be seen year-round. It never sets below the west because it is close to the NORTH STAR (POLARIS), making it a CIRCUMPOLAR grouping.
Most constellations are known as SEASONAL constellations because they are far from the North Star and slip beneath the western horizon after travelling for a few months across the night sky.
The Big Dipper can be used to find the North Star. First, find the bowl. Then draw an imaginary line up and beyond the two end stars of the bowl and you will see the North Star. Many people think that the North Star is the brightest star in the night sky. Not true! It's way down on the brightness scale at about 50.
The North Star (which remains in one spot year-round) is the lead star of the seven-star LITTLE DIPPER, which pours into the Big Dipper. But you have to be at a very dark site like a farm or a cottage away from city lights to make out the Little Dipper.
There is something unique about one of the seven stars of the Big Dipper. Look carefully at the second star from the end of the Dipper's handle and you'll spot a double star, ALCOR & MIZAR. The star duo is more definitive with binoculars or a telescope.
Some astronomers say the most rewarding object in the night sky is the MOON.Between March 21-to-31 and between April 19-to-29, the Moon will display its early evening phases:
- March 21 & April 19: crescent Moon.
- March 24 & April 22: first quarter Moon.
- March 31 & April 29: full Moon.
The photo shows the Moon between crescent and first quarter.
Craters and "seas" (the grey areas of the Moon) can be easily picked out with binoculars or a low power telescope. The secret to viewing the night sky with binoculars is to keep them as steady as possible: either mount them on a tripod or sit back in a lounge chair. Yes, even in winter a lounge chair is useful for amateur astronomers!
Being the closest (and largest) celestial object, the
Moon is not hard to find. After sunset, the crescent phase appears in
the west, the quarter phase in the southwest and the full Moon in the
Did you know that the craters were created by giant space rocks (asteroids) that slammed into the Moon billions of years ago? If the Moon had an atmosphere, the craters would have long eroded away from wind and water erosion like what happened on Earth. But because there is no atmosphere on the Moon, the craters have not changed ever since they were formed.
The Moon's craters and mountains are most dramatic if you look near the terminator, the line that separates the dark side from the sunlit side. That's because the shadows created by the Sun are the longest. If you look through a telescope, you can even spot crater walls disappearing into the shadows.
As noted above in Special Event, a Venus-Mercury conjunction—when the two planets will appear close to each other, will occur between March 15 and 18.