How to see five planets, Mars, and a lunar eclipse

  • 17/07/2018

July is the perfect time to take a close look at the night sky, with all five planets visible, Mars the closest it's been in 15 years, and a lunar eclipse to look forward to.

Newshub spoke to Stardome educator Josh Kirkley about the best way to spot what's going on in the sky.

The closest look at Mars until 2035:

Mars is set to be closer to earth than it has been in 15 years, and it won't be this close again until 2035, according to Stardome observatory educator Josh Kirkley.

"Although planetary opposition with Mars happens every 2.5 years or so, Mars is not only orbiting close to Earth, but also the sun," Mr Kirkley says.

"Mars and all other planets have elliptical egg-shaped orbits; they are not perfectly circular. This means that the distance from Mars to the sun changes throughout its year.

"This year's opposition happens to be at one of Mars' closest points to the sun, and Earth happens to be orbiting in the same area at the same time.

A shot of Mars.
A shot of Mars. Photo credit: Getty

"Mars is hard planet to see in a telescope due to its small size. It usually appears as just a bright spot of orange light, and only very large telescopes can resolve surface details. This opposition will be the best chance many of us will get to see the surface of another world until 2035."

On the night of the opposition - Friday, July 27 - Stardome will be open from 6pm until late with telescopes out for viewing Mars and food trucks outside.

Alignment of five planets in the sky:

It's rare to see all five planets in the sky, but you'll have the chance to spot them over the next week or two.

"Mercury will be the first planet in this alignment in the west, followed by Venus, the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars to the east. They will all form a line that stretches across the ecliptic of our solar system," Mr Kirkley says.

"Planetary alignments are quite rare because the planets are always moving.

"Planets like Mercury and Venus orbit the sun quite fast, so it's not often than that they all happen to line up at once with the other planets to have a planetary alignment."

Tips for spotting all five planets:

The best time is between 6:30pm, when Mars rises in the east, and 7:15pm, when Mecury sets in the west

The best viewing point is at a vantage point with unobstructed views of the horizon, such as the maunga around Auckland. You'll only be able to spot the planets if the sky is clear enough.

A brief chance to spot the 'blood moon' Lunar Eclipse:

A full lunar eclipse will take place in the early morning hours of July 28 - but in New Zealand, we will only see a partial blood moon.

"This is a full lunar eclipse, however it is considered partial here in New Zealand as we will not get to see the full duration of it," says Mr Kirkley.

A 'Blood Moon' lunar eclipse.
A 'Blood Moon' lunar eclipse. Photo credit: AAP

"At around 5:15am on July 28 the full Moon will begin to enter Earth's shadow, known as the prenumbra. It will gradually dim until about 6:25am, at which point it will enter the part of the shadow known as the umbra.

"This is when the Moon will start to turn red. However, the Moon will begin to set in the west at around 7:20am as the sun is coming up, so we will not be able to witness the entire duration of the eclipse."

If you're hopping to spot the partial blood moon, you need to have a clear view of the western horizon. The best hours to see it will be between 6:25am and 7:20am.

"Those wanting to see this also need to be aware that the sun will be rising during this time, so daylight will begin to wash out the colours of the Moon as it turns red," Mr Kirkley explains.

"It's still definitely worth seeing as the next blood Moon won't be visible in New Zealand until May 2021."