If you are a Tweeter or a Facebook user you will no doubt have seen one or more memes breathlessly alerting you to an “amazing” or “spectacular” or even “astounding” line up of planets happening in the pre-dawn sky at the moment. As is the case with others relating to comets, meteor showers and eclipses, many of these memes are produced – with good intentions, I’m sure – by people who know little or nothing about astronomy, and are just repeating what they’ve seen or heard elsewhere. The problem is, many of these memes are so inaccurate (some are utter rubbish!) they give people the totally wrong impression about what is actually going on, and can lead to people being very disappointed when what they see in the sky doesn’t match the hype. Some are even suggesting the planets will only be visible like this for one morning, and that will be it.
So. Deep breath. What is actually going on in the morning sky at the moment? This:
Essentially, five planets are currently on view in the sky before dawn, arranged roughly in a line stretching from the south east to the south west. They look just like stars. A couple (Venus and Jupiter) are really bright, a couple (Mars and Saturn) are a lot fainter, and one (Mercury) is so faint – and so close to the horizon before sunrise – that you might actually need binoculars to see it. And this parade of planets is not a one-special-morning thing; it will be visible for the next few weeks, with the planets shuffling along the line a little during that time. It’s NOT a spectacle, and it’s not astounding or amazing. Yes, it’s fascinating to see, and astronomers like myself will be losing a lot of sleep looking at and photographing it, but the man, woman or cat in the street might see all those planets and just think they’re stars. It’s rare, and a big deal for sky-watchers, but it’s not a slap-across-the-face “WOW!!!” thing for the public like an eclipse or meteor shower.
Ok, that’s the basics covered. A bit more detail…
Many people think that you need a telescope to see planets in the night sky, but that’s not true. In fact, no fewer than six of Earth’s sister worlds are visible without any optical aid at all, looking like stars in the sky – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all look like obvious stars to the naked eye. Uranus can just be glimpsed with the naked eye, from a dark sky site, but only if you know exactly which “star” it is, because it never really gets any brighter than the faintest star the eye can see without help from binoculars or a telescope.
On any clear night the chances are at least one or maybe even two of these planets will be visible in your sky, shining like a star in one of the zodiacal constellations. You’ve probably seen Venus blazing in the west before, as the ‘Evening Star’ and no doubt have seen Jupiter and Saturn at some point last year too. Sometimes a couple of planets meet in the same part of the sky, which astronomers call a “conjunction”, and if they come really close they can look like a lovely double star which really catches the eye. Late last year, for example, Venus and Jupiter shone very close together in the east before dawn, and many early risers enjoyed watching them come together and then drift apart again as Christmas loomed on the horizon. I know I had a lot of very early mornings photographing them from a park in Kendal, but it was worth the lost sleep because they looked absolutely beautiful, especially when the Moon joined them…
Sometimes we enjoy a very rare treat, when several planets gather together in the sky, and that’s what’s happening at the moment. Before dawn there are five planets on view, all strung out across the eastern and southern sky in a line, like shining beads on a bracelet. While the aforementioned conjunctions happen all the time, planetary ‘identity parades’ like this are quite rare – the last one of this beauty happened ten years ago – and we won’t be treated to another like this for a while, so you really should try to make the most of it, either by getting up early or staying up late.
The planets don’t just suddenly pop into view together though. They will appear over the eastern horizon, one by one, over the course of the night. The first planet to appear will be Jupiter, and that will actually be visible in the east from 10 pm, shining like a very bright silvery–white star beneath the back of the constellation of Leo…
Then, as the hours pass, and the stars wheel around Polaris, fainter, orange-hued Mars, yellow–white Saturn and still-brilliant Venus will all follow Jupiter, poking their heads above the horizon one after the other…
…until, by quarter past seven*, as the eastern sky is brightening with the approach of dawn, Mercury appears too.
But by that time the sky will be so bright you might need to sweep the eastern sky with binoculars or a small telescope to find it. You’ll only have half an hour to do that though before the imminent sunrise makes it too dangerous, so be very careful.
If you don’t want to watch the planets appearing one by one, just get up at – or set your alarm for – quarter past seven in the morning, and heading outside you will be able to see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter all stretched out in a line across the sky before dawn, each one looking like a star. On the far left end of the line, the lowest and closest to the horizon, Mercury will, as has already been said, be rather hard to see against the brightening sky, so you may need a pair of binoculars to pick it out. But I have to say again, to be absolutely sure, only try looking for a while; don’t still be looking for it when the Sun rises, or you might accidentally look at the Sun through your binoculars and damage your eyes or even blind yourself.
This planetary identity parade will last for the next couple of weeks, and at the end of January and into February the Moon will start to hopscotch along the line of planets too, which will not only help you identify which planet is which but will also look gorgeous!
So don’t worry too much if your morning sky is cloudy tomorrow morning, or the next few mornings, you should have time to see this celestial show at some point before it finishes, there’s no rush! And if you can, why not try photographing this rare line-up of worlds with a wide angle lens? It would provide you with a lovely souvenir of a show in the sky we won’t see again for quite a while.
Good luck! And if you want to know more about what’s happening in the night sky, you should definitely go over to the Society for Popular Astronomy website, where you’ll find lots of information for the beginner about all things astronomical!
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