Rare planetary alignment: How to spot the 5 'bright planets' all at once

Star-gazers hoping to catch a rare night-sky view are in luck this month: the planets are – literally – aligning.

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Beginning Wednesday morning, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter will be perfectly lined up so that stargazers have a chance to view all five planets at once.

The rare phenomenon happens when the planets reach a point in their orbit when they're all visible from Earth at the same time, said Rachel Ward-Maxwell, an Ontario Science Centre researcher-programmer in astronomy and space sciences.

"(The alignment) comes from our perspective and where we are in our orbit around the sun, as well as where those planets are in their orbit," Ward-Maxwell said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca from Toronto.

The alignment doesn't mean the planets are passing directly in front of each other or overlapping, Ward-Maxwell said. Rather, it means that the planets will appear along an arc in the sky.

"It means that we see them as though they are all along a curved line, called the ecliptic," she said.

The phenomenon is expected to last until Feb. 20, at which point Jupiter will drop below the western horizon and only four planets remain visible.

How to get the best view of the phenomenon

For the best view, Ward-Maxwell recommends looking up at the sky between about 7:15 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. over the next few weeks.

"If you look towards the southern sky in the early mornings, around 7:00 a.m., that's the time that Mercury appears just above the horizon," she said. "Once Mercury rises, you'll be able to see the five planets in the sky at once."

And because Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter are "bright planets," or planets visible to the naked eye, no telescopes are necessary, Ward-Maxwell said.

To locate the planets, York University Astrophysics and Astronomy Professor Paul Delaney recommends first scanning for Venus, the brightest of the five planets.

"Venus is by far the brightest object in the sky apart from the moon and sun," Delaney said. "So you should be able to see a blazingly bright Venus."

From there, Delaney advised looking towards the southwest for the second-brightest planet, Jupiter.

Using Venus and Jupiter as a guide, stargazers should be able to find Saturn and Mars, he said.

"If you sort of join Venus and Jupiter with a gentle arc, you find … two other bright objects along that arc," Delaney said.

To ensure you're looking at a planet and not a star, Delaney said observers should watch whether the light is constant or twinkling.

"Planets tend to shine with a steadier light," he said. "If you look for, say, 60 seconds and conclude it's steady, then it's a planet."

For those who do have a telescope, Ward-Maxwell recommended taking advantage of the chance to get a more detailed look at Jupiter and Saturn.

"If you do have one, get a glimpse of the moons of Jupiter or rings of Saturn," she encouraged.

Both Ward-Maxwell and Delaney said it's been a decade since the last time all five bright planets were visible at once.

According to Ward-Maxwell, they're expected to line up again later in August, but the phenomenon will be much shorter at that time.


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