In many ancient cultures throughout the world, the brightest objects in the sky have been portrayed as Gods. Which are of course, the sun, the moon, and earth's siblings of the solar system: the planets. Planets, though they only return the light of the sun, have lured our ancestors so much that they worshipped these shiny orbs in hope. They also saw no difference between the sun, the moon and the planets, that they referred to all these bodies collectively as 'planets', because all these moved through the skies.
Scientifically, Planets are objects of considerable mass that circumnavigate a star in circular or elliptical orbits. Planets of any star system, not just ours, retain a great deal of information about the birth, evolution and the aftertime of that stellar system. Our own Solar system contains nine interesting planets and a number of other objects like comets, asteroids and Cooper Belt objects. The first four planets (in the order of their proximity to the sun), namely Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are made of mostly rock and metal. The next four in row, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are colossal aggregations of gases and liquids without a solid exterior. The former planet Pluto, is a frozen mass of gas at inert temperatures. Pluto was officially known as a planet till the end of 2006 when the IAU formally defined the term 'planet' and stripped Pluto off its status as a planet. Pluto is reclassified as a minor planet or dwarf planet. This created a controversy and some people still consider Pluto as a planet for practical purposes.
Not all the planets in our solar system are visible to the naked eye. The five that are visible on evenings after sunset, though not all at the same time or throughout the year are Venus, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn. Venus is the closest planet to the Earth, and the brightest object in sky after the Sun and Moon. Known as the 'evening star' in the western skies and the 'morning star' in the eastern, Venus is visible in both skies for a major period of the year. Thus it is the easiest planet to gaze at.
The next planet to look at would be Mars. Often visible on the lower right of Venus, Mars is dimmer and reddish in appearance. The red color of the planet is attributed to the presence of large amounts of oxides of Iron in its soil.
Mercury is difficult to catch, and requires prior planning. While it is bright, it shows up only momentarily after the sunset, and demands patience to identify it.
Jupiter, the largest of planets, is mildly brilliant and easily spotted, to the south, eastward of Venus. With a telescope, Jupiter is a pleasure to watch, revealing many of its satellites.
Saturn, the brightest object in the southeast following sunset can easily be recognized. Like Jupiter, it requires a telescope to appreciate the charming ring-structures, and satellites orbiting it.
Uranus, is rarely visible as an extremely faint object in the skies, difficult to recognize it from other stars adjacent to it. However it can be located through a telescope after anticipating its location in the sky.
Neptune and Pluto, being exorbitantly farther from the Sun, are extremely faint for the naked eye and can be met through a telescope.
Unlike star watching, which requires little prior knowledge of where the stars are located, Planet watching requires planning beforehand. Stars relatively stay fixed in their constellations most of the time. Planet motion however, makes it difficult to expect them in certain locations. Our Earth's own motion relative to the other planets, makes the picture a bit more complicated. Though difficult, Planet motion is completely predictable. This is because we have knowledge of the orbits and time periods of all the planets orbiting the Sun, including our own. Previously, Planet watching enthusiasts required updates from astronomy magazines or hobby clubs that provided them with the information they needed. Today, Software has changed the picture. Astronomy software has made it easy for scientists and star gazing enthusiasts alike to predict the sky in their locations at any specified time. This is a must for planet watchers, since for watching planets it is essential to know beforehand where they will be.
Star mapping software can guide in the creation of a precise sky map of a particular region at a particular time thus making it possible for novices to easily identify the planets and other objects in the sky. Astronomy software is rightly the first tool available to the Stargazer in the 21st century, ahead of the telescope!
Christian Nuesch is the creator of Asynx Planetarium, an easy-to-use, free astronomy program that helps render and create sky maps of the moon, planets, stars and constellations. It features time-traversal to simulate motion through past and future, graphics, animations and a location customization feature. You can download the free Asynx Planetarium Software at http://www.asynx-planetarium.com .