Stargazing wonder every day for a month as 5 planets align

20 Jan 2016

Even the laziest of stargazers will have the chance to witness a cosmic spectacle originating in our very own solar system as, until the end of next month, five of its planets will align in a starry parade.

Like some of the best cosmic events, the frequency of when planets align in our solar system is quite low, with the last occurrence being over a decade ago, but now the time has come for us to see the display as we make our way to work each morning.

According to The New York Times, the ‘fab five’ of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter will be almost completely visible to the naked eye, although some of the planets – particularly Mercury – might need to be viewed through a telescope.

And, like a parade, each planet will begin appearing in the night sky one-by-one gradually as the night goes on, with the solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter, the first to appear, followed by Saturn, Mars, then Venus and finally little Mercury.

There’s also the issue of how exactly to spot the planets among the millions of stars that make up the night sky as, despite their slightly different hue, they will be pretty hard to spot.

Tips for seeing the cosmic parade

First, it’s advisable to wake up around 45 minutes prior to dawn for those of us in the northern hemisphere, and then immediately cast your gaze towards the east, where the star parade should appear.

Once you’ve done this, then use a quick stargazing trick suggested by Jason Kendall from the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York, which doesn’t require any equipment bar your thumb.

By holding your thumb up to the object in the sky you believe to be one of the planets, you should be able to identify a planet if the light it is emitting slowly dims out.

However, if it quickly disappears from view as you slowly pass your thumb across it, then it is a star.

The parade got underway this morning but, fear not, as it will be present in the night sky for at least another month, but its peak will occur in the final week of January, going on until the end of the first week in February.

However, this doesn’t mean the end of the cosmic parade in 2016 as, like buses, a few come along at once, with the next showing expected to begin on 13 August and end on 19 August.

Planets align image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic