by J. Alex Knoll
By the Light of the Moon
Five planets and six sisters compete with Luna’s light
In the twilight hour after sunset, around 5:30 this week, Venus and Mercury pop into view above the southwest horizon. Venus appears first, brighter than any star. Mercury trails less than 10 degrees behind, not as bright as Venus but equal to any star and brighter than you likely expect. Over the next two weeks, both planets appear a little higher above the horizon at sunset and remain visible a little longer. Then, over the following two weeks, Mercury sinks back toward the horizon. Venus, however, remains a brilliant fixture as the evening star through winter and spring.
Dusk finds Saturn juxtaposed to Venus and Mercury, as the ringed planet rises in the northeast around the time of sunset. By midnight Saturn is high overhead, and as dawn emerges it shines above the west horizon.
Pre-dawn skies reveal Jupiter and Mars, as well. Jupiter rises in the southeast before 4am and is near the red-giant Antares, heart of the scorpion. Mars follows by a couple hours. Watch over the next several months as the two planets follow different paths. Jupiter crosses the entire southern sky, while Mars climbs higher north and shifts a little to the west.
Friday and Saturday the moon shines to either side of the Pleiades star cluster in the shoulder of Taurus the bull. Originally there were seven stars, representing Atlas’ daughters, Maia, Electra, Alcyone, Taygete, Asterope, Celaeno and Merope.
However, only six of these stars are visible to the unaided eye; Merope disappeared long ago. By one Greek legend, she deserted her divine sisters and married the mortal king of Corinth; by another she was Electra, founding matriarch of Troy, who fled her place in the heavens when that city fell.