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Feature

A star chart.

A chart of the Twin Cities sky as it appears on March 27 at 7:30 p.m. Symbols, left to right, represent Jupiter, Saturn, the moon, Mars, Venus, and Mercury.

The wanderers align

By Deane Morrison

Every year, the firmament of stars wheels overhead in predictable fashion. But sprinkled among the stars are orbs that move more freely. The ancient Greeks called them wanderers, and from their word comes ours: planets. Five of them--Venus, Mercury, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter--can be seen with the naked eye, but only every few years do they all line up for our viewing pleasure. Here's a guide to finding them about an hour after sunset through the end of March.

Venus is easy; look to the west, and you can't miss this dazzling evening "star." Far below Venus is Mercury, close to the horizon and probably hardest to spot. If you look earlier than an hour after sunset, Mercury will be higher but the sky will be lighter; look later, and Mercury will be deeper in the horizon's airglow, where the air is very thick. Good luck.

Above and east of Venus is rather dim Mars. Don't confuse the Red Planet with the bright star Aldebaran, the "bull's eye" of Taurus. If you find the lovely Pleiades star cluster above Venus, Mars will be east of the cluster, much closer to it than Aldebaran.

Saturn is east of the moon until March 27, then west of the moon for the rest of the month and almost directly above Sirius, the most brilliant star in the sky. Finally, Jupiter is the brightest object in the east, as unmistakable as Venus. Near Jupiter is Regulus, the heart of Leo, the lion.

Mercury won't be up for long, so enjoy the spectacle while you can.