People talk about the planets aligning, but have you seen real ones do it?
Assuming there is some clear weather in the coming month, early risers will be able to view Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter with the naked eye, in a string across the southern sky.
“We’re talking about the five naked-eye planets . . . all of them are bright enough to see,” explained Randy Attwood, executive director of the Astronomical Society of Canada.
Since they are moving their alignment will be imperfect, with their positions changing slightly each day.
NASA says the phenomenon — visible as of this week and lasting until about Feb. 20 — happens every few years when the planets’ orbits take them on the same side of the Sun.
Attwood told the Toronto Star that seeing all five planets at once is rare because they orbit the Sun at different speeds. Mercury and Venus take less than an Earth year to completely go around, while Mars, Jupiter and Saturn take longer.
“The planets are generally spread out more in the sky. You may have one or two planets visible in the early evening, and then the other planets will be visible, say, early in the night or just before dawn,” he said.
Mercury will be “really tough to see” because it is located low in the sky and rises just as the sky is brightening, Attwood explained.
But if the sky is clear, “then you should be able to see and identify Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter very easily because they are brighter than any of the other stars.”
The last time five planets were seen simultaneously was over a decade ago in December 2004 and January 2005, according to EarthSky.org.
“It’s a three-dimensional puzzle here. As the Earth goes around the Sun, our perspective . . . changes as we’re moving, but it also changes as the planets are moving,” Attwood said.
Dr. Alan Duffy, a research fellow at Swinburne University in Melbourne, told Australian Geographic that the alignment is “essentially a quirk” of the universe.
The last week of January and first week of February will be the best time to see the planets lined up, Sky and Telescope astronomy website reported.
To get a good look at the planets, look southward shortly before sunrise from a spot without tall buildings or trees that gives you an unimpeded view of the sky.
In early November, the “dawn planetary trio” of Jupiter, Venus and Mars was visible in the eastern sky about an hour before sunrise.