Five planets will parade across the dawn sky early Wednesday in a rare celestial spectacle set to repeat every morning until late next month.
Headlining the planetary performance are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. It will be the first time in more than a decade that the fab five will be simultaneously visible to the naked eye, according to Jason Kendall, who is on the board of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York.
Admission is free, though stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere should plan to get up about 45 minutes before sunrise to catch the show. City dwellers can stay in their neighborhoods to watch, as long as they point their attention to the east, according to Mr. Kendall.
“For Mercury you will need binoculars,” he said. “It will not jump out at you, but everybody should be able to see Venus and Jupiter.”
Mr. Kendall said that the hardest task for viewers will be discerning the planets from stars twinkling in the sky. But he offers a simple trick: close one eye, stretch out your arm and slowly pass your thumb over a bright dot in the sky. If the dot slowly dims out when your thumb passes over it, it’s a planet. If it quickly blinks out, it’s a distant star.
The show is expected to run from Jan. 20 until Feb. 20, but the peak time to see all five is from the end of January until the first week of February, when Mercury is at its highest points, according to Sky & Telescope. The display is made possible by the uncommon alignment of all five planets along what is called the “ecliptic” plane of their orbits according to Jim Green, the planetary science division director at NASA.
Each planet will appear in the sky one by one, starting Tuesday evening with Jupiter around 9:20 p.m. in New York. 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 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, and makes it too bright to see the planets. The display will appear in the sky at similar times across the East Coast and before dawn across the northern Hemisphere.
“It’s not super often you get to see them all at the same time in the sky, it’s like seeing all of your friends at once,” said Jackie Faherty, an astronomer from the American Museum of Natural History. “There they are, the other rocks or balls of gas that are running around the sun.”
Those who miss the planetary alignment this time around will have another opportunity from Aug. 13 to 19, when the cosmic motley crew gives an encore performance, according to EarthSky.org. That show will take place in the dusk sky, giving stargazers in the Southern Hemisphere the best vantage points.