Observations

Watch the early morning planetary dance of May 2011 as four naked eye planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter – jostle for position in the eastern sky

The positions of four naked eye planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter

The positions of four naked eye planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter as they jostle for position in the eastern sky at 5:40 am before dawn each morning from 10 to 20 May 2011. Drawing Nick Lomb using Stellarium

During May 2011 it is worth rising early despite the chilly mornings to view the dance of the planets in the eastern sky. Over this month the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter take up a variety of interesting patterns that change from morning to morning. As the planets are fairly bright, city lights and other forms of light pollution for once hardly matter. Some highlights:

Thursday 12 May – Venus passes just over one moon-width from Jupiter

Friday 13 May – Jupiter, Venus and Mercury form a triangle with Mars below. Sydney Observatory is holding a special early morning viewing

Saturday 21 May – Mars, Venus and Mercury form a triangle with Jupiter above

Tuesday 24 May – Venus passes two moon-widths from Mars

Tuesday 31 May – Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury are in one line with a thin crescent Moon forming a triangle with Mars and Venus

If Saturn was with the four planets then all five naked eye planets would be near each other and we would have an even rarer spectacle. However, Saturn is holding the fort as the only evening planetary representative and so it is out of the picture.

Configuration of planets 10 May 2011

The position of the four planets plus the Sun and the Earth as seen from above the plane of the solar system on 10 May 2011. Drawing Nick Lomb using the JPL Small-Bodies Database Browser

Why do we get these interesting patterns in the sky? As the planets circle the Sun, each with its individual period or year, they sometimes are in a position that, seen from Earth, leads to such patterns. As indicated in the drawing above on 10 May 2011, as seen from Earth, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter are almost in the one line. Hence they appear close together in the sky.

Configuration of planets 20 May 2011

The position of the four planets plus the Sun and the Earth as seen from above the plane of the solar system on 20 May 2011. Drawing Nick Lomb using the JPL Small-Bodies Database Browser

The drawing above shows the positions of the planets 10 days later on 20 May. As can be seen the four planets closest to the Sun have moved appreciably in their orbits or paths around the Sun. Jupiter has hardly moved in the interval and so it is the odd one out and the one that appears furthest from the other three.

For those with a digital camera all this action in the morning sky provides a perfect opportunity for some celestial photography. For a preview of what can be achieved have a look at the great image on the Observatory’s Facebook page taken on 8 May 2011. Time exposures are necessary so rest the camera on something solid, or preferably use a tripod, before pointing it at the sky. Of course, use a suitable zoom setting so that the four planets are captured in the image.

Enjoy the show!

26 responses to “Watch the early morning planetary dance of May 2011 as four naked eye planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter – jostle for position in the eastern sky

  • I have photos of this event during a sunset. I cant beleive no one else took photos. 1 planet appears as an inside down rainbow that slow moved acress the sky. And due to the misty cloud and natural earth rainbow was present too. Then they slowly 4 hours it took for them to meet then create an eye as the “planet” passed. The sun seamed to have flares tgat hit the rainbow and created bright orbs that lasted 4 sec (approximately) enough to capture aswel. Ive posted on my facebook but noone has been able to explain the pics.. sorry my phone at the time was not the best quality..

  • The sky position of the first 5 planets in May 2011 is the same than May 2015? Thank you for your advise. Oami/ 26/5/15

    • Oami,
      Yes, there is some similarity in the relative positions of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. But Jupiter has a orbital period of almost 12 years so it is in a quite different relative position now. This arrangement and similarity has no special meaning, of course.

  • wonderful sight on the 13th and again yesterday 28th (only two I’ve managed to wake for) will do again, spectacular!
    very clear view from sydney around 5.50 am

  • I am in Darwin NT and noticed a very bright object near the moon this morning at 9.00am, it did not appear to be moving but when i checked again at 9.50am it was gone. Was it a planet that could still be seen? It was so bright and amazing to watch.

    • Hello Kazdal. No there was no planet near the Moon on the morning of 24 May 2011. The object that you saw could have been a tiny cloud, a weather balloon or a high-flying aeroplane.

      • Thanks for the response, certainly was not a cloud and I doubt a plane as it was too large for the distance away. A mystery it is then, but glad I saw it, what a shame I did not have the camera handy.

  • So, is it possible to view this anywhere else on the planet? I’m in Örebro, Sweden, and I’m thinking of going up early tomorrow to look out for it. The sun comes up 04.10 here. 

    • Hello Interested. The planets can be seen at most places around the world, but at you location I doubt if it is dark enough before dawn to see Mercury and Mars. You should be able to see Venus and maybe Jupiter.

      •  Thanks for the reply! Yes, it’s not dark for very long these days up here, but it’s worth to give it a try! 🙂 Will go out on tuesday morning. Worst case scenario, I’ll get a beautiful sunrise out of it!

    • Hello Charles. Just before dawn (nautical twilight), say, between 5:30 and 5:50 am. Make sure you have a good view to the east as Mercury, Venus and Mars are near the horizon. 

  •  miracle day in the sky..conjugation of planet within 2degree …May indicate certain disasters…..

  • I didnt know this was happening. I walked out of my home at 5.30 this morning and saw them which prompted me to do a search and find this sight. Truely amazing! 

  • Wonderful viewing the four planets from a hot air balloon, west of Cairns, on the Atherton Tablelands. Seeing the planets in the night sky and then as the dawn light changes here has made for some great photos. http://www.hotair.com.au and we are looking forward to the 2012 eclipse here in the tropics too.  

  • Anyone in Melbourne see this/can it be seen here? How low towards the horizon are we talking about? 

  • A bit thank you to all of the Obervatory staff. I was there this morning and enjoyed the viewing immensely. The commentary was informative, and the tea and croissants were yummy. And, for bonus points, the Harbour Bridge was closed, so there was no traffic noise.

  • WOW got up early 0500 with hubby this morning they are clear as truly a wonderful sight to behold. photograph beautifully as well

  • I live in the Blue Mtns and to see Venus and Jupiter roll over the horison in a perfectly clear sky was like watching the headlightsd of an oncoming car. It is fantastic toto mercurty and mars. First time. Wow!

  • Saw them this morning as I cycled to work, they looked great. Tomorrow morning might require the camera!

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