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Mercury & Saturn Now Shining with Two Bright Stars

Mercury, Saturn and 2 Stars Sky Map
Just after sunset this week, look for a string of bright objects in evening twilight: planets Mercury and Saturn, and first magnitude stars Spica and Regulus. (Image credit: Starry Night Software)

Look closely at the southwestern horizon this week, and you’ll see two planets and two bright stars.

Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, and never strays very far away from the sun in our sky.

Tonight, July 20, it is at greatest elongation east from the sun, 27 degrees away, only slightly farther than the width of the Big Dipper. (Your clenched fist held at arm's length covers about 10 degrees of the night sky.)

This is the farthest Mercury will get from the sun this year, so is a good opportunity to catch the elusive planet. It takes a sharp eye to spot Mercury’s tiny speck of light in the evening twilight; binoculars can be a great help here. Sweep above and to the left of where the sun has just set.

The sky map for Mercury here shows how the planet will appear in the night sky this week from midnorthern latitudes.

Saturn is now dropping rapidly in the southwest towards the sun, so this may be one of your last chances to see the ringed planet for this year. [Photos of Saturn Rings and Moons]

At this time of year, observers in the Northern Hemisphere will find the angle that the ecliptic — the path the sun follows across the sky — makes with the horizon very shallow, putting both Mercury and Saturn very low in the sky. Observers in the Southern Hemisphere have a much better time of it, with the ecliptic rising steeply from the horizon.

Two bright stars are also visible in the southwest: Regulus just above Mercury and Spica just to the left of Saturn.

If you have a medium sized telescope take a look at Porrima, the pretty double star only a degree away from Saturn.

This article was provided to SPACE.com by Starry Night Education, the leader in space science curriculum solutions. Follow Starry Night on Twitter @StarryNightEdu.

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Geoff Gaherty
Geoff Gaherty

Geoff Gaherty was Space.com's Night Sky columnist and in partnership with Starry Night software and a dedicated amateur astronomer who sought to share the wonders of the night sky with the world. Based in Canada, Geoff studied mathematics and physics at McGill University and earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Toronto, all while pursuing a passion for the night sky and serving as an astronomy communicator. He credited a partial solar eclipse observed in 1946 (at age 5) and his 1957 sighting of the Comet Arend-Roland as a teenager for sparking his interest in amateur astronomy. In 2008, Geoff won the Chant Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, an award given to a Canadian amateur astronomer in recognition of their lifetime achievements. Sadly, Geoff passed away July 7, 2016 due to complications from a kidney transplant, but his legacy continues at Starry Night.