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In this section you’ll learn all about an imaginary line in the sky called the ecliptic. It’s useful to us when we’re hunting for planets because it is the route they all appear to follow.

How To Find A Planet When You Never Have Before

A common frustration in beginners is being told by more experienced astronomers that finding planets is easy. Whilst experience does make planet spotting straight forward, if you’ve never done it before, they all just look like stars!

There are 8 recognised planets in the solar system. Like me, you were probably taught at school that there are nine. Sadly, poor, cold, distant Pluto was downgraded to a ‘dwarf planet’ a few years ago and no longer counts.

We live on one of those 8, and Neptune and Uranus are outside of the scope of this course because they are too small and too far away for us to worry about. Which leaves us with just 5 to find and enjoy.

Mercury and Venus are the two planets closest to the sun, then it’s Earth followed by Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. (Each of these planets has its own section in the complete course).

Three things about the planets make them a great target for backyard astronomy, they are:

  1. Bright, which makes them easy to find and observe.
  2. In the same plane as they orbit the sun, which means they can always be found on or close to an imaginary line called the ecliptic, which we’ll study in more detail below.
  3. Close to Earth, which means most of them have details we can study through our telescopes.

I’ll cover off what you can see on each planet in its dedicated section. For the rest of this section I’m going to help you learn about the ecliptic.

The Ecliptic

In this video, I explain what the ecliptic is and why it’s the only place to look for the planets.

Video Courtesy of SkySafari Pro – www.SkySafariAstronomy.com.

Where to Find the Ecliptic

The next series of screenshots show you where to find the ecliptic in the evening or morning for each month of the year. They assume Kansas City’s latitude, which is roughly in the middle of the US. The dimmest stars in these pictures are magnitude 4, so are visible under all but the most polluted skies.

Pay attention to the compass directions below the green line representing the horizon.

Planets rise roughly in the east and set roughly in the west. This means that, generally speaking, the ecliptic is a line that can be traced from near due east, to its highest arc over the due south horizon before coming back down to the horizon near due west. The maximum height of the ecliptic above the horizon varies by season.

Use the pictures below as a guide for where the ecliptic is by month (evening and morning), which will help you locate the planets I cover in the rest of this module.

January Ecliptic

All Images Courtesy of SkySafari Pro- www.SkySafariAstronomy.com.

February Ecliptic


March Ecliptic


April Ecliptic


May Ecliptic


June Ecliptic


July Ecliptic


August Ecliptic


September Ecliptic


October Ecliptic


November Ecliptic


December Ecliptic


Summary

You now know where to find the ecliptic throughout the year, which makes it much easier to find the planets when you’re looking for them.

Keep watching your email inbox for tomorrow's free guide.


To learn more about the complete version of 
The Beginner's Guide to Backyard Astronomy, 
click this link.