See all five naked eye planets in January & February 2016

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.

The pre-dawn sky From Sydney on Australia Day, 26 Jan 2016. All five naked eye planets and the Moon are visible. This chart should work anywhere in the southern half of Australia. Image made with Stellarium.

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.

11 responses to “See all five naked eye planets in January & February 2016

  • I was up at 04:45 this morning 26 Feb and viewed Mercury and Venus from my bedroom window! ( i live near Durban on the east coast of South Africa) I then went outside to identify the other 3 visible planets. Not sure i was correct with Jupiter but think I might have been as the 5 planets were still visible in the same arc when all other bright objects had disappeared. Was Jupiter close to the waning moon? Thank you for a beautifully explained article. I have felt elated all morning since viewing

  • It’s 10 Feb and as I was awake at 5am I got up was able to see Venus, Mercury Mars and Jupiter. It’s exciting to see Mercury so clearly from my own backyard (in Canberra). Thanks for all the useful info on your site.

  • On ABC News at Noon today was a brilliant explanation off this featuring Dr Charley Lineweaver explaining this alignment. It uses Playdough on a string showing the planets. It can be found here; http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-19/five-bright-planets-to-align/7099376 , with the video embedded with an alternate explaination.

    Delightfully entertaining and an education highlight that I haven’t seen for sometime

    As for seeing c.2.5 magnitude Mercury in the murk of city skies, I have real doubts in seeing it, even assuming a perfectly flat horizon! With the elongation of 12.7 degrees from the Sun tomorrow morning, and improving only by about another 2 more degrees in the coming days, it seems improbable. Even at 20 degrees, Mercury’s visibility remains an open challenge – best of course viewed in March or September where the ecliptic rises perpendicular to the horizon.

    • That’s Charley in fine form, always with a helpful prop! I wonder if he’d let me collect it? You are right, Mercury is difficult to see but the sky over Sydney this morning was exceptionally clear. Maybe someone will let us know when they first spot it…

      • > Tell the truth, when I saw this I almost wished I was 8 or 9 old all over again. The Great Red Spot of Jupiter is just classic. Well thought out presentation, lighthearted but gets the message across. I think it would make an excellent example for astronomical educational purposes. ABC’s newsreader Brigid Glanville here also deserves some credit too. Impressive.

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