Sky Watch

I'm a naked eye astronomer, as were all astronomers before the invention of the telescope, four centuries ago. I love to watch the sky at night, observing the slow dance of the planets amongst the stars.

Today we get only a dim glimpse of what earlier peoples must have seen in skies free from dust pollution and, in urban areas, from the light pollution that bleaches out all but the moon and brightest stars.

Here are some things you can see in the evening sky, after sunset, as the never-repeating, never-ending, cosmic dance continues.

Planet Positions:
(Unless stated otherwise, positions are for the evening sky.)

Mercury is usually hard to see because its stays close to the sun. Its orbits the sun once every 88 days, and so alternates between evening sky and morning sky approximately every 6 weeks. It appears in late December, accompanying Venus into the evening sky.

Venus reappears as evening star in the new year, rising higher through first half of 2015. In early January, she is in close conjunction with Mercury and Mars. At the end of June she greets Jupiter coming form the East.

Mars hangs low in the West through December, greeting Venus a she emerges for one of her magnificent evening displays in 2015.

Jupiter appears a few hours after sunset in January. Rising earlier though the Spring, to become a bright light through the summer sky, approaching Venus in the West. The two pass close at end of June.

Saturn leaves the evening sky in November, reappearing in the morning sky in December..

Sky at a glance for current week.

NASA Solar System Simulator for a view of the planets and their moons at any time, and almost any angle.

Animated orrery Beautiful bird's view of solar system.

Meteor Showers

Quadrantids. Maximum at January 3-4
Lyrids. Maximum at April 21/22
Eta Aquirids. Maximum at May 5/6
Delta Aquarids. Maximums at July 29 (S hemisphere) and August 13 (N hemisphere)
Perseids. One of best meteor showers of the year. Maximums nights of 11-12 August.
Orionids. Maximum 21 October.
Leonids. Maximum 17-18 November.
Geminids. Maximum 13-14 December.

The Ecliptic
For spotting planets, and following their motion, it is helpful to know where the ecliptic is. The ecliptic is the imaginary line stretching across the sky, along which the sun, moon and planets all appear to move. If, for example, the sun has just set, and the moon is up high, then the ecliptic is the line from the sun (somewhere just over the horizon) through the moon and beyond to the opposite horizon. The planets will also be not far from that line. Or, if you can see two planets, but no moon, the line through the two planets defines the ecliptic. It doesn't take long to get to know where the ecliptic lies, and roughly where to look for planets.

The twelve Zodiacal constellations (Taurus, Pisces, Gemini, etc.) also lie on the ecliptic -- they are the constellations the planets pass through.