From late January through February 2016 all five naked eye planets will be visible at once in the pre-dawn sky. This planetary arrangement occurs on average every 12 years.
What can I see and when? To see these five planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter – look to the east between about 5:15am and 5:30am any time from Saturday January 23 to the end of February. You can use the star chart and directions below to help identify the planets.
Begin by looking towards the brightest part of the horizon, or just south of due east. You will first notice Venus, it is very bright and may sparkle like a diamond. Venus is similar in size to Earth and is covered in thick clouds. The clouds reflect a lot of sunlight hence the brightness of Venus.
Below Venus look for Mercury, much fainter than Venus but brighter than any star nearby. At first Mercury is just over a fist-width (or about 13-degrees) below Venus – that is, if you make a fist and hold it out at arm’s length your fist will just fit between the two planets. Find out more about measuring angles across the sky with your hand from the One-Minute Astronomer. Mercury is the innermost planet and swiftly orbits the Sun. It is the most difficult of the five planets to spot. As January turns into February the gap between Mercury and Venus closes up until, on Feb 13, they are just under three fingers apart.
The next planet up is Saturn, the ringed planet. It is also much fainter than Venus but brighter than Mercury. Initially it is 18-degrees (can we call this an index-pinkie span?) above Venus. It is yellowish and just above and right of it is the reddish star Antares in the constellation Scorpius.
Now extend the line made by Mercury, Venus and Saturn further overhead to find Mars – it’s not called the red planet for nothing, although many people see it more a red-orange colour. A little further (another index-pinkie span) along the line is the star Spica, whitish, the brightest star in Virgo. During February Mars drifts slowly towards Saturn passing through the constellation Libra.
Keep following that long line across the sky and finally high in the north-eastern sky you will find Jupiter, King of the planets, appearing very bright and yellowish.
So now you’ve seen all five naked eye planets just as they’ve been seen for millennia, ever since our ancient ancestors first looked up and noticed that some ‘stars’, the planets, moved.
If you want extra help identifying the planets from stars the Moon comes to the rescue. On Thursday Jan 28 it is very close to Jupiter, on Tue Feb 02 it’s near Mars, Thu Feb 04 beside Saturn, Sat Feb 06 it’s above and left of Venus and on Sun Feb 07 the thin crescent Moon is below and left of Mercury.
How rare is this? The last time all five planets were visible at the same time was in January 2005. The next occurrences are in August 2016, although only visible from the southern hemisphere in the evening sky, and again in October 2018. However, on average measured over thousands of years planetary arrangements like this occur about every 12 years.