Five planets align for the first time in a decade

Sacrifice some sleep for a rare celestial treat

Graphic by Jondell Coombs

For the first time in over 10 years, there will be five planets simultaneously visible to our naked eye.

For the rest of January, and up until around Feb. 20, early risers will get to see Saturn, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Mars aligned.

The rarity of this occurrence stems from the fact that, due to their dissimilar rotation times, it is very rare for all of these planets to be on the same side as the sun. The orbit time of each planet varies from days to years. The last time the planets aligned was in December 2004.

Here’s how to experience it in the best way possible: set your alarm to an hour or so before sunrise, as this gives you time to get ready, psych yourself up a bit, and get to an ideal viewing spot. Your best chance of getting a clear view will be in an area with as little light pollution as possible with a clear view of the southeast horizon. Then look up. It’s that easy.

Randy Attwood, executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, also recommends bringing a star chart, which can be downloaded online.

Jupiter will be visible late at night. Mars will appear at about 2 a.m. Within the next few hours, Saturn and Venus will become visible. These should all be relatively simple to make out. Mercury will most likely be a bit more difficult, as it appears close to sunrise, and is close to the sun. Bring binoculars if you have them, as some planets will be brighter than others.

While the planets will be visible for the entire month, their level of visibility will vary. Kelly Beatty, senior editor of Sky and Telescope, recommends that if you are planning a specific time to check it out, do so around the last week of January to the first week of February. This is because Mercury will appear brightest to us at that time.

If you miss out, don’t be too disappointed. All five planets will be visible again this year, from Aug. 13 to 19. However, the planets will have found themselves on the other side of the sun, meaning people will be able to see them just after sunset, rather than before sunrise. The planets will not be aligned, and Mercury and Venus will be less visible.

So try and get out there now, if you can. Getting a peek at what exists beyond our planet is a pretty exhilarating experience. Life is too short to sleep in, especially when you could be viewing another part of our solar system instead.