Solar system showing relative size of (but not distance between) planets.

Keep tabs on our planets with Morrison Planetarium's quarterly guide to planetary activity.


The planet Mercury, image by NASA/JPL

The nearest planet to the Sun starts the season entering the evening sky, although it's washed from view by the glow of twilight until November. However, just after sunset, the plane of the solar system (or ecliptic) is at a shallow angle with respect to the horizon, which keeps Mercury very low and barely visible in the east-southeast, even when it reaches greatest eastern elongation on November 6. Scooting back into the glow, it reaches inferior conjunction on November 27, then passes into the morning sky, eventually creeping out of the dawn glow and becoming visible in early December (don't mistake it for brighter Venus). It reaches greatest western elongation on December 15, when it's separated from the Sun by 21 degrees and rises about 35 minutes before Jupiter and more than an hour before dawn. Mercury rings the year to an end with a close-encounter with Jupiter on December 21, when the two are less than a degree apart in the morning sky. Then, it joins a bright, conspicuous line of solar system objects (Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and the Moon) on the morning of the 31st.

The Moon passes nearby on October 9, but the encounter is too close to the Sun to be seen. Its pass on November 9 might be visible with difficulty. After Mercury moves to the western side of the Sun, the Moon passes nearby on the morning of December 5.



The planet venus, image by NASA/Caltech/JPL

Once considered Earth's twin (although not so much nowadays), Venus is moving between Earth and the Sun and is currently washed from view by the Sun's glow. It reaches inferior conjunction on October 26, when it is between Earth and the Sun, after which time it moves into the morning sky, emerging from the glow of dawn by early November and passing a fifth of a degree from the star Spica on the 14th (that's less than half the apparent diameter of a full Moon). After that, it keeps climbing in the southeast, taking up a dominant position just before sunrise.

The Moon passes nearby on October 10, but this is so close to the Sun that the pair are washed from view by the glow. The Moon and Venus rise together about an hour before dawn on November 5 and should be visible that morning, while the close pairing of the two on December 3 is easy to see, rising 3 hours before dawn.

On the morning of December 31, early risers can enjoy the stunning sight of the waning crescent Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury forming a diagonal line rising in the east.



The planet Mars, image by NASA

In mid-October, with Jupiter setting and giving up the spotlight, Mars takes over as the dominant planet in the early evening sky, still shining brightly even months after opposition. Through the end of the year, its eastward movement against the stars takes it from Capricornus the Sea-Goat through Aquarius the Water-Carrier and just into Pisces the Fishes by the end of the year. On the nights of October 17-18, the Moon can be seen nearby, even closer on November 15, and again on December 14.



The planet Jupiter, by NASA

Slow-moving Jupiter, the largest of the planets, plods behind the Sun and is hidden in the glare for much of the season. At the beginning of October, Jupiter is in the early evening sky, setting soon after the Sun. At this time, it's low enough in the sky that atmospheric effects make it a difficult object to keep in focus, even in telescopes. By mid-month, it's hidden in the Sun's glow and passes conjunction on October 25. It's not visible at all in November and re-emerges in the predawn sky in mid-December, passing very close to Mercury on December 21st.

The Moon passes near Jupiter on the evening of October 11, when both are very low in the southwest soon after sunset. The next encounter between the two on November 8 is washed from view by the Sun's glare, as is their meeting in the predawn sky on December 6.

And don't miss the procession of Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and the waning crescent Moon capping off the year on the morning of December 31.



The planet Saturn, by NASA/JPL/Saturn institute

The Ringed Planet is visible in the early evening sky nearly through the end of the year. It's located in the south-southwest just after sunset in October against the stars of Sagittarius the Archer, well-positioned for telescopic viewing, which easily reveals the planet's stunning rings. Saturn gradually appears closer to the southwestern horizon as the season progresses, remaining within Sagittarius. By mid-December, it's so low in the southwest at sunset that haze along the horizon and atmospheric turbulence make it difficult to clearly.

The Moon passes very close to Saturn—less than two degrees away—on October 14. It makes an even closer, approach on November 11, but the moment of closest approach happens during daylight hours for the U.S. and will not be seen. By sunset, the separation between them will be about 4 degrees. However, the season's closest encounter between the two occurs on December 8 and sees them only a degree apart, but very close to the Sun and very low in the southwest after sunset.


Sunrise & Sunset Table

Times are for San Francisco, California, and will vary slightly for other locations.

October 1
Sunrise | Solar Noon | Sunset
7:05 am | 12:59 pm | 8:16 pm 
All times PDT

November 1
Sunrise | Solar Noon | Sunset
7:35 am | 12:53 pm | 8:18 pm
All times PDT

December 1
Sunrise | Solar Noon | Sunset
7:06 am | 11:58 am | 7:39 pm
All times PST