Thursday 29 September 2016

When Jupiter aligns with Mars (and the others). Planets unite for pre-dawn show

Published 21/01/2016 | 18:11

A telescope will be needed to see the full story of Saturn's rings
A telescope will be needed to see the full story of Saturn's rings

Amateur astronomers will have the chance to spot an unusual celestial spectacle over the coming weeks - five planets visible in the sky.

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Stargazers with a sharp eye will be able to spot Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, which come together in view for the first time in 11 years.

The unusual alignment first became visible in the UK shortly before dawn on Wednesday, and will remain in view for the next few weeks - with the best chance of spotting them early on February 5.

Robin Scagell, vice-president of the Society for Popular Astronomy, said: "It is really a chance alignment of the planets rather than anything greatly significant, it just so happens that all the right planets will be in the morning sky.

"They are quite well separated, in a line stretching from the South East to the South West in the early morning sky before sunrise."

The planets will appear over the eastern horizon one by one over the course of the night, with Jupiter out first shortly after 10pm.

Stretching in a diagonal line from the horizon, the planets should be visible to the naked eye in a clear sky, though binoculars or a telescope will give much clearer views.

Mercury and Venus will be first, though Mercury will be very difficult to see because of its position, and then in a break from the order of planets out from the sun, Saturn will be visible next, followed by Mars and Jupiter.

Mr Scagell said: "They are all different distances, spread out around the solar system, and it just happens to be that they are in the sky at the same time, which doesn't usually happen.

"Often you get one or two in the evening or morning sky, but to be able to see all five is a bit unusual because Mercury is a very quick mover, and it always stays close to the sun, so it only is in the sky for about 10 days or a couple of weeks at a time and then it disappears around the back or the front of the sun so we don't see it again.

"So to get all five planets in a line like this is fairly unusual."

Those peering through binoculars will see the planets as bright dots. Jupiter's small moons will be visible, as will the red colour of Mars.

Mr Scagell said: "Through powerful binoculars you might see that Saturn is slightly elongated. You would be able to see a hint of the rings, but you wouldn't be able to see the rings themselves without a telescope.

"In the case of Jupiter you would be able to see its moons on either side. It has four bright moons and you can see them on either side of the planet, even with binoculars."

But while binoculars or a telescope are luxuries for a keen stargazer wanting to see the planets, a decent alarm clock is not - the rising sun means the planets will be invisible come dawn.

Those who do miss them will have another chance in August, and then again in October 2018.

Press Association

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