National Astronomy Week 2020 is not just about Mars. It's also a great time for observing other planets, the crescent Moon and plenty of fascinating constellations. Here are just a few highlights of the sky to get you started.
The largest planet in out solar system is around in the early evening in late 2020, so try to get a look at it. It has been around during the summer quite low down in the south, where you may have noticed it as the brightest starlike object around. But now it's over in the south-west, and you'll have to catch it just after sunset as it sets just after 7 pm. The diagram below shows you where to look.
It's still very bright, so you should be able to spot it in the twilight sky. Take a look with binoculars and you'll see that it isn't alone. There are up to four little stars, or what look like stars, alongside it. These are actually its brightest moons, and they were first spotted in 1610 by Galileo who was using one of the first telescopes. As a result they are known as the Galilean moons. He noticed, and you can see as well, that they change position night by night, and he realised that this is because they are orbiting Jupiter. All four are not necessarily on view all the time, because some may be in front of or behind the planet.
If you do have a telescope to hand, take a look at the planet itself and you should be able to make out the darker belts that cross the planet. You may find them tricky to see at first, because they are not as dark as the photographs suggest when you look through a small telescope, but keep at it and you should see them. These are not actual markings but zones of clouds on the planet, which is entirely gaseous.
Larger telescopes will show detail on Jupiter, and we will be livestreaming the planet, or recordings made earlier, during NAW. You may be able to see the famous Great Red Spot, which will be on display from time to time.
If you've found Jupiter, you have almost found Saturn as well. The ringed planet is just to the left of and slightly above Jupiter in the sky at the moment, although it's rather fainter. They are only three degrees apart at the moment – that's less that two fingers' width at arm's length, so don't look far away.
Although with binoculars all you'll see is a slightly elongated dot, with a magnification of only about 30 or 40 you can start to see those rings for yourself. They are quite wide open at the moment, so they are quite easy to make out. By 2025 they will be edge on to us, so they will be quite hard to pick out even with a telescope.
The rings are not solid, but are swarms of ice particles all in separate orbits around the planet. They are just the brightest of the ring systems in the solar system. Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune also have rings, but they are much fainter. It could be that Saturn's rings are a fairly temporary phenomenon – come back in a few million years and you might not see them!
You might also spot Saturn's largest moon, Titan. It's not as bright as the moons of Jupiter, but most telescopes will show it.
These two giant planets are also in the sky, but are much harder to find. Both are too faint to be seen with the naked eye, so you need to track them down by knowing exactly where to look using a star map or a computer-controlled telescope. And when you do find them, there are no details to be seen on them – they just have tiny bluish discs. Here's a link to a page that will help you find Neptune.
These two planets are both in the morning sky at the moment. Venus rises before the Sun in the east before sunrise and you can see it looking brilliant, low down at about 6 am. Mercury follows it, rising about an hour later, but might be tricky to see in the twilight sky.
Once you've looked at the planets you'll probably want explore further. We've picked out some of the highlights of the starry sky here.
Last Updated: 2020-12-30 22:47:39