Somewhere in the world, right now, an intrepid hero is racing against the clock to stop a dark magic ritual from taking place. Or so I assume, because the planets are aligning. From tomorrow morning, the five planets that are visible to the naked eye will be aligning in an impressive spectacle for early risers.
The last time the planets aligned like this was in 2005, and after this year they won’t assume the same formation again until late 2018. The five bright planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter — will be visible in a line stretching from the horizon to the moon as of tomorrow morning, and will continue to be visible until February 20, so there’s no rush to get out and see it. Viewing the alignment will still require a bit of careful planning, however, as you only have a ten minute window between 5:30am and 5:40am (AEDT) to see it before the sun comes up and ruins the picture.
The biggest challenge in viewing this five planet astronomical event is going to be Mercury. The closest planet to the sun also hangs closest to the horizon, which means there is a very short period between it appearing and the sun rising. To ensure you have the best chance of catching this rare event, try and find a viewing area with good visibility on the horizon such as a large, flat field, or somewhere with a high vantage point. As with all astronomical events the less light pollution you’re dealing with, the more you’ll be able to see, and you should always give yourself five to ten minutes for your eyes to adjust to the low light — yes, that means not checking your smartphone.
If you miss this month-long window of opportunity, you’ll get the chance to see this formation again in August of this year, after which it won’t be seen again until 2018. Still, there are plenty of opportunities before then, so if you don’t see it on your first go (or if you sleep through your alarm) you can always try again.
For those who have problems spotting the right points of light in the night sky, it might be worth downloading an astronomy app to help you locate the planets. Check out SkySafari 5 ($0.99 on iOS), Night Sky Pro ($1.99 on Android), Star Chart (free on Android and iOS) or SkyMap Free (free on Windows Phone).