Late August and early September 1998 is a great time for watching planets. None of the bright ones are in the sky as it grows dark, but then they rise one by one until all of them are visible before dawn.
Brilliant Jupiter rises about one hour after sunset; bright Saturn follows about 1 1/2 hours after Jupiter; dim ruddy Mars ascends as the eastern horizon just begins to glow; spectacular Venus follows Mars in growing morning light; and elusive Mercury stands close to Venus, the pair majestically soaring on the soft white blooms of day.If you are out in the early morning after all these planets are visible, you can scan the line they make across the sky from north of east to south of west. In doing this, you will be following the planetary highway through the zodiac, defining the plane of Earth's orbit around the sun. The zodiac is the collection of constellations that have always carried the planets as they move year after year, century after century and millennium after millennium.
During this hot time of year, the early morning is the most enjoyable time to be out. Cool breezes blow as the dawn light issues in the day. Between 5:30 and 6 a.m. you can look just north of east to watch brilliant Venus glide over the landscape. Dimmer Mercury will be near Venus, changing position each morning. Mars will be upper right of Venus, dimly showing its famous red character. Saturn will be high in the southern sky, and radiant Jupiter will be to the lower right of Saturn, south of west. Both ends of the planetary path will be punctuated by dazzling objects: Venus on the eastern side and Jupiter on the western.
In order to completely enjoy this vista of planets you will need to have a low horizon toward the east. People in West Valley can just step out their doors, while those with towering mountains to the east will need to drive to another location, perhaps into those mountains or over to the west side of town.
Morning by morning you can watch Venus and Mercury jostle in the sky as if engaged in ritual dance. Thursday morning Mercury will be just right of Venus. Friday morning it will be slightly higher. It will slowly continue to move farther above Venus, then the two planets will appear to draw closer together again. On the morning of Sept. 7, Mercury and Venus will form a tiny perfect triangle with Regulus, brightest star in Leo the Lion. On Friday, Sept. 11, they will be less than one-half degree apart, forming a spectacular pair in the surging dawn.
Each of these wandering bodies of the heavens derived its earlier reputation from its apparent behavior. Mercury moves so rapidly that classical cultures referred to it as the swift messenger. Venus is so beautiful that for many cultures it became symbolic of feminine beauty.
Because of its brilliance, Venus has been important for all cultures, with a vast range of ideas associated with it. Unlike most groups, the Maya of Mesoamerica saw it as a symbol of warfare and human sacrifice. These two, Mercury and Venus always accompany the sun, being visible in the glow of either sunrise or sunset. Thus, they are frequently considered to be emissaries of the royal sun.
Currently, Jupiter is undergoing retrograde motion and approaching opposition to the sun, a position it will occupy on Sept. 16, rising as the sun sets. Saturn changes its place among the stars most slowly of all the naked-eye planets.
In some ways Mars is most interesting of all. It ranges from very dim when near the sun in either morning (as it is now) or evening sky, to very bright when at opposition. Because its orbit is close to Earth's orbit, it's retrograde motion is extreme, making it seem to perform complex maneuvers in the sky as if doing battle with stars it encounters. Add to that its bloody color and you have the qualities that made it a warrior for both Old and New World cultures.