In an alignment not seen since 2005, a slew of planets will align across the pre-dawn sky for nearly a month starting just before sunrise on Wednesday January 20.
“All five planets should be visible simultaneously before dawn beginning around January 20, 2016,” says Earthsky.org. “And they’ll remain visible before dawn from about January 20 to February 20, 2016.”
Between January 27 and February 6, sky watchers will have help from the moon in locating the planets, Earthsky.org says. And, according to Sky and Telescope, those are actually among the best days to catch all five planets.
“Realistically you're not going to see Mercury linger in the predawn sky for a whole month,” says Sky and Telescope, noting that the last week of January and first week of February are the “best bets for success.”
What you’ll see is Jupiter rising first, on the previous evening, then Mars after midnight and then Saturn, followed by Venus and Mercury, Earthsky.org says. Mercury will be at the far left and Jupiter at the right. All will line up to sweep in a graceful arc across the sky, Sky and Telescope says.
“That's no accident,” says Sky and Telescope. “All of the major planets lie very near the plane of Earth's orbit, which projects as a line—the ecliptic—across the sky.
The sun always lies along it, and the moon stays close to it as well, Sky and Telescope says. “It's the superhighway of planetary motion among the stars.”
Mercury might need an assist from binoculars, said amateur astronomer Jason Kendall, who serves on the board of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York, to The New York Times.
Here’s how it will unfold, minute by minute.
“Each planet will appear in the sky one by one, starting Tuesday evening with Jupiter around 9:20 p.m. in New York,” The New York Times reports. “Mars will follow the gas giant’s solo debut, appearing as a reddish dot at approximately 1:11 a.m. E.S.T. Wednesday. Saturn enters next around 4:00 a.m., followed by Venus—the brightest orb—nearly an hour later. Mercury will join the ensemble last, taking the stage at around 6:17 a.m. It will last until the sun rises, at about 7:15 a.m. on Wednesday in New York.”
Given that this has not happened in just over a decade, it may be worth getting up a tiny bit early.
“You'll need to be outside about 45 minutes before sunrise,” says Sky and Telescope. “It's a real visual treat, so don't pass up the chance to see it.”