Night skies in Spain
Axarquia, Costa del Sol, Andalucia, Spain


As seen from Earth, the motion of all planets is eastwards taken over the whole year. As Earth is also moving, and more quickly than the outer planets, it overtakes them around the time of opposition. At this time the outer planets appear to move backwards against the stars.

The term used to descibe forward easterly direction is direct motion and backwards motion is called retrograde. The point at which the motion changes from direct to retrograde, or back again, is when a planet is said to be stationary. The position at which a planet becomes retrograde prior to opposition is the 1st stationary point and that a which it resumes direct motion following opposition is the 2nd stationary point.

In the diagram the direct motion to the east is shown at positions 1,2 and 3, backward motion to the west at 4 and 5, and direct motion to the east again at positions 6 and 7.

Oppositions (position 4) occur when an outer planet is in the opposite side of the sky from the Sun as viewed from the Earth. At opposition the planets are at their brightest. Mercury and Venus can never be at opposition since they are inside of the Earth's orbit and, therefore, remain relatively close to the Sun. The brightest times for Mercury and Venus are close to greatest elongations.

The other side of the cycle from oppositions are conjunctions when, as viewed from Earth, a planet is in line with the Sun whose glare is too bright for the planet to be visible in the night sky.

Venus and Mercury, as inner planets, move very quickly against the constellations. They have no stationary or retrograde motion and are always seen moving easterly against the stars.

During 2012:
Mercury MERCURY, the Solar Systemīs smallest planet, moves from the morning sky to evening sky several times a year. As it never strays far from the Sun, it can be hard to find in the Sunīs glare.

For observors in the northern hemisphere, in the first week of January Mercury is visible low in the south-east before dawn. It re-emerges at the end of February, low in the west after sunset, and puts on its best evening show of 2012 in the first half of March. Mercuryīs best morning appearance runs from the last week of November to mid-December. Because of its proximity to brilliant Venus during the first two weeks of the month - a good guide to locating the much fainter Mercury, - the most interesting morning apparition is during December.

2012 Mercury Event
February 07 Superior Conjunction
March 05 Greatest Elongation East - 18š - mag -0.8
March 21 Inferior Conjunction
April 18 Greatest Elongation West - 28š - mag -1.0
May 27 Superior Conjunction
July 01 Greatest Elongation East - 26š - mag +0.6
July 28 Inferior Conjunction
August 16 Greatest Elongation West - 19š - mag +0.1
September 10 Superior Conjunction
October 26 Greatest Elongation East - 24š - mag +0.1
November 17 Inferior Conjunction
December 04 Greatest Elongation West - 21š - mag -0.3

Venus VENUS, the dazzling morning or evening star, outshines all the other stars and planets in the night sky.

From the beginning of 2012, Venus is brilliant in the west as the Evening Star, reaching greatest western elongation on 27th March. It disappears from view by the end of May, to re-emerge as the Morning Star in mid-June. Venus is then visible before dawn until the end of the year.

January: Venus commences 2012 as a brilliant evening object, brightening from -4.0 to -4.1 magnitude during January whilst moving from Capricorn into Aquarius. The planet can be seen in the south-western sky after dusk, setting 3 hours after the Sun in northern temperate latitudes. During January the planetīs phase decreases from 83% to 74%. On January 26th the waxing crescent Moon passes close to Venus, creating an attractive spectacle in the evening twilight sky.

February: From northern temperate latitudes, Venus sets almost 4 hours after the Sun. From tropical and more southerly latitudes the planet sets just 2 hours following the Sun. Venus moves into Pisces during February and brightens slightly to -4.2 magnitude. The planet appears gibbous as its phase decreasing from 74% to 64%.

March: Venus reaches greatest elongation on the 27th March and is a spectacular object in the evening sky. During March brightness increases from -2.2 to .4.4 magnitude, the phase decreases from 64% to 49% and the planet moves rapidly from Pisces, through Aries and into Taurus. At greatest elongation on March 27th, Venus sets 4 hours 40 minutes after the Sun. Moonless evenings just after mid-month are an ideal time to check for shadows cast by Venus. The planetīs easterly motion through Aries takes it past Jupiter between the 12th and 15th March, making a fabulous pairing of two bright planets. On the 25th and 26th March the waxing crescent Moon is closeby.

April: Remaining a spectacular evening object, Venus still sets 4 1/2 hours after the Sun in northern temperate latitudes. Brightness increases slightly to -4.5 magnitude during April and the phase decreases further to 27%. Through a small telescope, you can observe the planetīs shape change from half-illuminated to a crescent as Venus approaches Earth. Moving against the background constellation of Taurus, Venus appears very close to the Seven Sisters (Pleiades) on the 2nd and 3rd April presenting an interesting photo opportunity.

May: Venus begins the month as a prominent object, -4.5 magnitude in the south-western evening sky, setting 4 hours after the Sun in northern temperate latitudes and just 2 hours after in the tropics and more southerly climes. However, Venus moves very rapidly towards the Sun as May progresses and will be lost in the bright dusk twilight sky before the end of the month.

June: Venus passes through inferior conjunction on 5th - 6th June when it can be seen in a rare transit across the face of the Sun. The next transit isnīt until 2117! At this time Venus is too close to the Sun to be seen in the sky but it reappears in the north-easterly morning sky on 15th June shortly before sunrise for observors in equatorial and southerly latitudes. From these latitudes, by the end of June, Venus rises 2 hours before the Sun increasing from -4.0 to -4.4 magnitude with a phase increasing to 16%. Venus is too low for good observation in northern temperate latitudes.

July: Venus is still low in the morning sky for northerly observors but, as the month progresses, it draws away from the Sun and, by the end of July, rises 3 hours before the Sun with a phase increasing to 41%. Closeby Jupiter moves away as the month proceeds and, as the eastwards motion of Venus is faster than that of Jupiter, they are well separated by the end of July. The crescent Moon makes an interesting grouping with Venus, Jupiter and the star Aldebaran (magnitude +0.85) in Taurus on the morning of 15th July.

August: Venus passes through greatest western elongation in mid-August and, whilst still a brilliant morning object, fades slightly to -4.2 magnitude. By the end of August, Venus rises 4 hours before the Sun from northern temperate latitudes, with a phase increasing to 58%. The rapidly moving planet moves from Taurus into Gemini during the month. The waning crescent Moon is close to Venus on the morning of 14th August.

September: Continuing to rise 4 hours before the Sun, during September brightness fades slightly to -4.1 whilst the phase increases to 70%. Moving eastwards, Venus moves from Gemini, through Cancer and into Leo. The waning crescent Moon appears close to Venus on the morning of 12th September. On 13th September Venus is just below The Beehive (Praesepe) star cluster in Cancer.

October: Fading slightly to -4.0 magnitude during October, Venus rises 3 1/2 hours before the Sun and remains a lovely morning object as it moves into Virgo during the month with a phase increasing to 81%. The waning crescent Moon lies close to the right of Venus on 12th October and on 13th October is directly below Venus.

November: Remaining at -4.0 magnitude during November, Venus rises less than 3 hours before the Sun by the end of the month and considerably less from the tropics and southerly climes. During November, Venus moves into Libra with a phase increasing to 88%. The waning crescent Moon lies close to Venus on 11th November and on 27th November Venus passes 1š south of Saturn.

December: By the end of 2012, Venus, at -4.0 magnitude, rises just 1 1/2 hours before the Sun from all latitudes as its elongation from the Sun decreases. The planetīs phase increases to 94%. Venus is close to the much fainter Mercury during the first two weeks of December. If youīre up before dawn on 11th December look to the south-east for a beautiful grouping of Venus with the crescent Moon, Mercury to the lower left and Saturn higher up to the right.

2012 Venus Event
March 27 Greatest Elongation East - 46š - mag -4.4
June 05 to 06 Inferior Conjunction
June 05 to 06 Transit of Venus across the face of the Sun
August 15 Greatest Elongation West - 46š - mag -4.4

Mars MARS, the Red Planet, brightens during January and February until reaching its bi-annual opposition on 3rd March. Thereafter, it starts to fade until lost from view in October. It re-emerges from the Sunīs glare at the end of November, low in the south-west in the early evening.

January: Mars commences 2012 moving eastwards with a direct motion in Leo, crossing into Virgo mid-month. The planet reaches its first stationary point on 24th January and thereafter moves retrograde westwards, back towards the border with Leo. It rises mid-evening by the end of January with a brightness increasing from +0.2 to -0.5 magnitude.

February: Mars rises mid-evening at the beginning of the month and 2 1/2 hours earlier at the end, noticably brightening from -0.6 to -1.2. Its retrograde motion carries it back into Leo in early February. Mars passes aphelion on 15th February when it lies 249.2 million kilometres, its greatest distance, from the Sun.

March: Mars is in opposition on 3rd March with a magnitude of -1.2 and is visible all night. It ill be at its closest to Earth two days later, at 100.8 million kilometres. As this is an aphelic opposition (see diagram on the left), the apparent diameter of the disk reaches just 13.9 arc seconds at opposition this year - about half the apparent disk diameter enjoyed at a perihelic opposition when, as in August 2003 when it was only 56 million kilometres from Earth, it can attain 25.1 arc seconds. Mars will not be as close as in 2003 again until 2018.

Opposition in 2012 occurs close to the northern hemisphere summer/southern hemisphere winter solstice on Mars, which takes place on 30th March, so that the north pole of the planet will be tilted towards Earth. At opposition, a small telescope will show the polar cap, dark rocky outcrops and other major markings on the planetīs surface. Mars fades quickly after opposition as the apparent size of the disk decreases whilst its distance from Earth increases. By the end of March, magnitude will be -0.7 and the disk diameter 12.6 arc seconds.

April: Now past opposition, but still visibe all night, Mars fades to 0.0 magnitude during April and the apparent diameter of the disk drops to 10 arc seconds. The planet commences April moving retrograde in Leo but, after reaching its second stationary point on 14th April, recommences a direct easterly motion.

May: Continuing to traverse Leo, Mars fades further to +0.5 magnitude during May as its distance from Earth increases. It is visible in the southern sky as night falls and sets in the early hours of the morning.

June: Visible in the south-western sky as darkness falls and setting close to midnight, Mars moves into Virgo on 21st June and fades to +0.8 during the month.

July: Mars, still visible as darkness falls and setting before midnight, is moving through Virgo west of Saturn (also in Virgo and slightly brighter). Magnitude fades to +1.1 by the end of July as Earth pulls away from slower-moving Mars.

August: Mars is visible in the early evening, low in the west-south-western sky, but sets less than two hours after the Sun. Its rapid easterly motion takes Mars past Saturn, both in Virgo in mid-Agust. On the evening of 14th August, Saturn, Mars and Virgoīs star Spica (no 1 on our Virgo chart) will all be in line and it will be interesting to compare the brightness and colours of the three objects - Saturn +0.8 magnitude should look yellow, Mars +1.1 magnitude and reddish, and Spica approximately +1.0 magnitude and blue-white. From northern temperate latitudes Mars is low in the twilight dusk by the end of August but better placed for observors situated further south.

September: At magnitude +1.2 , Mars continues to be visible in early evening in the south-western sky as it moves from Virgo into Libra during the month. From northern temperate latitudes, the planet remains low in the twilight at dusk setting less than two hours after the Sun but is better placed for observors further south.

October: Mars is too low in the south-western dusk to be easily observed from northern latitudes. The waxing crescent Moon appears closeby on 18th October and the planetīs motion carries it from Libra, through Scorpio and into Ophiuchus during the month. Observors in the tropics and southern hemisphere can see Mars pass north of the red star Antares (no 10 on our Scorpio chart) on 22nd October, presenting an interesting opportunity to compare colour and brightness - Mars at +1.2 magnitude and Antares slightly brighter at +1.05 magnitude.

November: Although very low for northern observors, darker skies at the end of November mean Mars may become visible again, for a short window after sunset, as it continues to be from further south. Magnitude remains at +1.2 whilst the planet moves from Ophiuchus into Sagittarius during November. The waxing crescent Moon passes above Mars on 16th November.

December: Still low in the sky, at magnitude +1.2, Mars moves from Sagittarius to see the year out in Capricorn. The crescent Moon lies above on 15th December.

2012 Mars Event
January 24th 1st Stationary Point - Virgo - mag -0.5
March 03 Opposition - Leo - mag -1.2
March 05 Closest to the Earth - 100.8 million kilometres
April 14th 2nd Stationary Point - Leo - mag -0.4

Jupiter JUPITER lies in Aries at the beginning of 2012, gradually fading until, by the end of April, it has disappeared into the Sunīs glare. It reappears in the north-east in June against the constellation of Taurus near the Pleiades (Seven Sisters). In the early morning of 15th July, Jupiter is occulted by the Moon. Brightening through the summer months, Jupiter reaches opposition on 3rd December.

2012 Jupiter Event
May 13 Conjunction - Aries
October 04 1st Stationary Point - Taurus - mag -2.6
December 03 Opposition - Taurus - mag -2.8

Saturn SATURN is at its best for observing from January to August, reaching opposition on 15th April. by early September it has sunk into the twilight glow but re-emerges as a morning object in mid-November. After spending most of the year in Virgo, Saturn moves into Libra during December.
2012 Saturn Event
February 08 1st Stationary Point - Virgo - mag +0.5
April 15 Opposition - Virgo - mag +0.3
June 25 2nd Stationary Point - Virgo - mag +0.6
October 25 Conjunction - Virgo

Uranus URANUS start the year just visible to the naked eye but by March it has disappeared into the twilight glow. It reappears in June with visibility improving into the autumn. Uranus spends another year in Pisces and reaches opposition on 29th September.
2012 Uranus Event
March 24 Conjunction
September 29 Opposition - Pisces - mag +5.7

Neptune NEPTUNE spends another year in Aquarius and is best viewed from May onwards. It reaches opposition on 24th August.
2012 Neptune Event
February 19 Conjunction
August 24 Opposition - Aquarius - mag +7.8

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