Your Invitation to the Five Planet Party in the Sky
published during a waxing gibbous moon.

Here’s your invitation to the month-long five planet party in the sky, starting today. Wipe the sleep from your eyes and head outside for this spectacular pre-breakfast celestial treat. 

Five Planet

This illustration shows the locations of planets throughout the solar system. Circular symbols are plotted for February 1st, and the curved arrows indicate each planet’s motion through the month. During February the outer planets don’t change position enough to notice at this scale. Credit: Sky and Telescope

When is the planet party in the sky? Who will be there?

Starting today (yes, today!) the five planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter will be visible until February 20th in the predawn sky–no telescope needed! Tiny Mercury (the wallflower of the bunch) will be the hardest to spot, but according to Sky & Telescope senior editor Alan MacRobert, your best shot to do so will be during the last few days of January and first week of February. Best time for viewing is 45 minutes before sunrise. Yes, that’s very early. But you should do it anyway.*

Where should I go to observe this celestial spectacle?

So long as you can find a place with a clear, unobstructed view (no buildings, trees, spaceships, etc.) toward the southeast, you’ll be in the right place.

How can I find them? There’s a lot of bright things up there.

Look in the general direction of the sunrise (but not directly at the sun, please) and find Venus in the low horizon. Venus is the brightest star in the predawn sky, so you should spot it fairly easily. Mercury will also look like a star (gee, that’s helpful, thanks!) and is located to the lower left of Venus, by “about the width of your clenched fist held at arm’s length,” according to Sky & Telescope. Mercury will appear brighter and higher (closer to Venus) than it did the previous morning, so don’t expect it to be in the same place. Planets, as we know, move.

From Venus, look slightly upwards and to the right to spot Saturn (dimmer than Venus, but never say that to its face). You should see a bright orange-tinted star called Antares shining slightly below and to the right of Saturn. Mars is due south, and Jupiter will be high in the southwest. Sweep your gaze across nearly half of the sky to take in all these beauties at once.

If you’re still having a hard time, the Moon can also be your guide. It’ll be near Jupiter on the mornings of January 27th and 28th, Mars on February 1st, Saturn on February 3rd, Venus on February 5th, and above Mercury on February 6th.

Finally, remember that only stars twinkle. So if you’re looking at what you think may be Saturn, and it winks cheekily back at you, it’s not Saturn.

*When was the last time these planets were all visible in the sky?

The last time these five planets appeared together in the sky was over a decade ago, from late December 2004 to early January 2005. In fact, this happens only two or three times per decade on average, so don’t be lazy about it. You won’t get another chance to view all five of these planets together again until mid-August later this year, and even then, all five are no guarantee since Mercury will be very close to the horizon. Your next chance after August won’t be until 2020.

How is this happening anyway?

All planets in our Solar System (and all solar systems, by definition) trace their own unique orbit around the Sun, and in their own sweet time. At this momentous time on planet Earth, they are each positioned in their orbit where–as seen from Earth–they appear to line up in our night sky. However, this doesn’t mean that the planets are actually lined up like a row of dominos between the Sun and Pluto, nor are the planets actually closer together. It’s just a kooky coincidence to the delight of early-rising Earthlings everywhere.

Helpful Guides:

January 25th Viewing:

Five Planet

Here’s the view 45 minutes before sunrise as plotted for January 25th. With each passing day, Mercury will appear brighter and climb a little higher. Credit: Sky and Telescope

February 1st Viewing:

Five planet

Here’s the view 45 minutes before sunrise as plotted for February 1st, about when Mercury should be easiest to spot. Major constellations are also shown. For several days the waning Moon is marching eastward among the assembled planets. Credit: Sky and Telescope

Thanks to Sky and Telescope for all the details!