See Five Planets in the Sky Just Before Sunrise, Without a Telescope

1-20-16 Five planets Feb 1
Here, the view 45 minutes before sunrise as plotted for February 1, about when Mercury should be easiest to spot. For several days, the waning moon is marching eastward among the assembled planets. Sky & Telescope

Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter make simultaneous appearances just before sunrise every morning for the next month. These five "classical naked eye planets," as Sky & Telescope magazine senior editor Alan MacRobert calls them, will be visible each morning until February 20. But the best time to wake up early for a look at more than half of our solar system's planets, he tells Newsweek, is on the last few days of January and the first week of February.

The quintet should be visible to anyone in mid-northern latitudes around the world, including in North America, Europe and Asia, unless the sky is overcast. MacRobert explains when and where to look, step by step, to find each of the planets:

  1. Go outside roughly 45 minutes before the local sunrise, somewhere with a good view low to the southeast.
  2. Venus won't be hard to find as you look to the southeast, it's the "brightest thing there."
  3. Mercury isn't nearly as bright and is lower down on the horizon "in the oncoming glow of dawn," but should be "glimmering to the lower left" of Venus, visible if the sky is clear. Mercury is the limiting factor here, and the planet that sets the ideal window for viewing the celestial quintet because of its position close to the horizon.
  4. To the upper right of Venus, and also not as bright, viewers can find Saturn, not far from the star Antares.
  5. Continue turning to look south, and Mars should be visible higher up in the sky than the previous three planets. "You can tell [it's Mars] by its yellow orange color."
  6. "Way off to the west-southwest is Jupiter, which is second only to Venus in brightness."

Sky & Telescope has published diagrams that help illustrate approximately where in the sky these planets will be visible on January 25 and February 1:

1-20-16 Five planets Jan 25
Here, the view 45 minutes before sunrise as plotted for January 25th. With each passing day, Mercury will appear brighter and climb a little higher. Sky & Telescope

To say the planets will "align" is not quite accurate, MacRobert explains, because they're scattered at different heights. But they do appear in an arc, since all the planets (including the Earth) orbit around the sun on roughly the same plane. Whether or not the planets "align," MacRobert stresses that their appearance will have no eerie impact on the goings on here on Earth.

"Back in the days when people thought the planets were actual gods up there...when people thought the heavens were all about them, people invented astrology and ascribed all kinds of traits to the planets that affect human affairs," he says. "They don't. They're actually balls of rock and gas that do not care about us. It's not all about us."

All five planets usually appear at the same time two or three times each decade, but sometimes are too close to the sun to be seen easily. The full quintet has not been visible simultaneously since late December 2004 and early January 2005. The next chances to see it will be in mid-August 2016 and mid-July 2020, though Mercury will be very close to the horizon and difficult to see.

"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," Jackie Faherty, an astronomer from the American Museum of Natural History, told The New York Times. "There they are, the other rocks or balls of gas that are running around the sun."

MacRobert says he hopes celestial sights like this one help stir interest in astronomy and inspire curiosity about the solar system and the universe beyond Earth.

"We're ants on an anthill busily going to work and doing our things and running back and forth," MacRobert says. "Do the ants realize that they live in a city with skyscrapers overhead? That there [are] enormously greater surroundings around them? Well, that's sort of what astronomy can do for you."