Are you awake before dawn? Good. Go outside. Look east. Bask in the astronomical wonder of seeing all the brightest planets out at the same time, pinpricks of worlds drifting up from the horizon. Missed it? Try again any morning for the next month.
Starting this morning, all five planets bright enough to see with the naked eye are rising within hours of each other to form a glittering line slanting up from sunrise. Jupiter rises in the mid-evening and stays up all night right now. Mars, Saturn and Venus come next, with Mercury barely peeping over the horizon before the the burgeoning dawn washes it out. As an added bonus, Spica is joining the planetary party as one more unusually bright twinkle. (Can’t tell Mars and Spica apart? Mars has a reddish tint, while Spica is a cooler blue.)
If you missed the view this morning (and who can blame you? Sleep is lovely!), don’t worry, you have another shot to see this tiny little astronomical miracle. The planets will be rising together in this formation from January 20th through February 20th, 2016 when their orbits will scatter them back across the sky. The daily dawn show will be easiest to see on January 25th.
The critical feature for catching the quintuplet is being able to spot Mercury before it is lost in glare. Its rise time depends on where exactly you are, but it can be as much as 80 to 120 minutes before dawn. Although it’s naked-eye visible, it can be easier to find with a pair of decent binoculars. Binoculars turned on Jupiter will also help you see its largest moons—Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Alas, even high-powered specs won’t help you spot Saturn’s rings, although they will assist you in appreciating its golden glow. If you’re going to stay out a while, use NASA’s Spot the Station to predict when the International Space Station will come streaking past your early-morning view.
This is the first time all five naked eye planets were out together since January 2005.
Unwilling to brave the cold winter mornings? We’ll get a similar view of all five planets out strutting their stuff again this summer in the evening sky. August 13-19, 2016 all five will be up in the west. Those in the northern hemisphere be warned: although it may be extremely difficult to see Mercury and Venus tucked up against dusky sunsets. Those in the southern hemisphere should have a much clearer view, although then they’ll be braving winter weather of their own.
Did you get out for the planetary dance at dawn? We want to see your photos!
Image credit: Stellarium