The planets of our solar system orbit the sun in the same way that our planet earth does, but at different distances from it. We therefore see the planets (and the sun) along a line called the Ecliptic, at different places in the sky depending on the time of year and time of night. This is predictable but complicated as they are superimposed on the stars behind them which are much further away. A good app is invaluable for telling you what you can hope to see and where it is! Planispheres and star charts become more useful as you start to learn your way around the sky.
Closest to the sun and tiny, it spins very slowly on its axis, taking 59 days to turn once, and takes 88 days to orbit the sun. It can sometimes be seen with the naked eye in the evening sky.
Next is Venus which is easy to spot in the twilight hours when it is called the morning or evening star. It goes through phases so that it can sometimes be seen as a crescent through a telescope, like our moon, and takes 225 days to orbit the sun. Uniquely It takes even longer to spin on its axis, at 243 days.
We take 365.25 days to orbit the sun, which is why we need a leap year every 4 years to catch up! We have a slight tilt on our axis which is why we experience different daylengths in winter and summer and why the southern hemisphere is on average warmer than the northern hemisphere. We take 24hrs to spin on our axis, the angle of tilt varying the length of “day” or sun exposure as our area of the globe turns to face the sun.
Other planets also have moons, some more than one, and they are characterised by moving on an orbit around their particular planet. Consequently our moon rises and sets at noticeably different times each night. These times can be looked up on the web very easily for your area. The moon is “locked” into our gravity so that it rotates on its axis at the same rate at which it orbits the earth, consequently we always see the same “face” of the moon and never see “the dark side”. As the moon orbits the earth we see more, or less of it illuminated by the sun. When the moon is between the earth and the sun we can’t see it and this is called a new moon. It then becomes a waxing moon, a thin but growing crescent low in the western sky after sunset. The first quarter is half illuminated, and then it is called a “Gibbous” moon either side of full moon. The waning moon crescent rises in the morning sky slightly before the sun.
Simple binoculars will show a lot of detail on the surface of the moon, particularly the “seas” or “mares” that are actually lava filled and solid, and some beautiful craters.
A total solar eclipse happens because, remarkably, the moon is 400 times closer than the sun, but the sun is 400 times larger than the moon, so on the rare occasion that the three are in perfect alignment, the little moon is capable of blocking out the mighty sun!
Because the moon is actually on a slightly elliptical path, an “annular eclipse” can occur where a ring of sunlight shows around the shadow of the moon
The moon’s cycle is 29.5 days and this gives rise to our calendar months
A rising moon will sometimes appear red because the moonlight is filtered through more of the earth’s atmosphere and this scatters the blue light leaving more of the red to enter our eyes.
The October moon is often called the Hunter’s moon, probably because when the moon is high in the south at midnight, Orion the hunter is completely clear of the south eastern horizon for the first time since last winter.
The Terminator is the zone between the dark and the light side of the moon and is a good place to look for detail with binoculars.
Mars is known as the red planet as it has rust in its rocks and deserts and looks red through a telescope. It takes 687 days to orbit the sun and 24.5 hours to spin on its axis. It has 2 moons.
The asteroid belt Between Mars and Jupiter is comprised of lumps of rock orbiting the sun, they are left over from the formation of our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago.
Beyond the asteroid belt, the planets change from being small and rocky to being large and made of gas and liquid. Jupiter takes 11.9 years to orbit the sun, and takes nearly 10 hours to spin on its axis. It has 60 plus moons!
Saturn and its rings are one of the most spectacular sights through a small telescope. Each ring is made up of countless millions of frozen lumps varying in size from icebergs to snowballs, orbiting Saturn like so many tiny moons.
Saturn takes 29.5 years to orbit the sun, 10.25 hours to spin on its axis and also has more than 60 moons.
Uranus can just be seen with the naked eye, if you know where to look, but was not discovered until 1781, when William Herschel first noticed it through his telescope in his back garden in Bath! It appears as a small green disc through a telescope, obviously non star like, but with little detail as it is shrouded in clouds.
Uranus takes 84 years to orbit the sun and 17.25 hours to spin on its axis. It has 27 moons.
“The blue giant”, Neptune was discovered when early in the 19th century, astronomers noticed that something was pulling Uranus slightly off course. It can be spotted with binoculars with the help of your app and has 14 moons. It takes 164 years to orbit the sun and 16 hours to spin on its axis.
Pluto is further out yet and has been downgraded from planet to a “dwarf planet”