If you’re a morning person, there’s a treat in the air before sunrise: Five of the sky’s brightest planets are all lined up among the stars.
Normally, we can see the brightest planets of the solar system in the night sky in their planetary dance all year round. But it’s not often that they line up so spectacularly.
There’s another reason this is special: the planets appear in the sky in the same order as the outside of the sun: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
The best part is that you don’t even need binoculars to see the show. But you do need a good view of the eastern horizon.
Where and when to watch
The planetary election has been going on for a few weeks now. But on Thursday, Mercury will be at its highest point in the eastern sky, making it just a little easier to see. That’s not to say it’s high, though; it will be only about three degrees above the horizon.
The next planet beyond Mercury is the unmistakable Venus, the brightest planet in our night sky. It slowly descends to the horizon where it will finally become visible in the evening sky in the fall.
The next in this lineup is not a planet at all, but a beautiful crescent moon, which will lie between Venus and Mars, the next planet on the show.
Mars isn’t exactly at its brightest, but you won’t be able to miss it because of its reddish color. You can easily find it to the left of the second-brightest planet in the sky, Jupiter, which – like Venus – is hard to miss.
And finally there’s Saturn, which you can find higher up in the southeast.
Of course, in reality, these planets are still millions of miles apart, but their orbits happen to put them in prime viewing position for us here on Earth.
Although binoculars are not necessary, you can try the planets if you have one. They can also help you find the much fainter Mercury on the horizon. (Be careful not to get so caught up as using binoculars when the sun rises, as Mercury will be lost in its glare and you could accidentally look at the sun.)
However, what can be a lot of fun is to turn your binoculars to Jupiter, and in particular to do so in a few days.
Jupiter’s four brightest moons – Callisto, Europa, Io and Ganymede – are easily seen through modest binoculars. The moons orbit the solar system’s giant so quickly that you can see them change position night after night (and even more than one night, if you’re patient).
To find out which moons you’re looking at, check out Sky & Telescope’s Jupiter’s Moons Page (there is also an app available for smartphones).