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Night Sky News: See the Tightest Planet Gathering Yet This Century

Image courtesy StarDate Magazine

Talk about an early morning eye-opener! Every day this month, about 20 to 45 minutes before sunrise, sky-watchers will get a rare opportunity to watch four worlds—Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter—in the closest planetary grouping yet seen this century.

This, planetary conjunction—astro-lingo for when planets cluster together in the heavens—has provided some impressive sights already. But the early-bird sky show is really culminating this week as they form their tightest grouping yet!

Jupiter, the gas giant and second brightest of the bunch, will glide past Venus on May 10 and 11, making the larger world easy to spot despite it being less than a quarter as bright as the goddess of love. Most impressive is that the two planets will be separated by only  0.5 degrees, which means you could easily cover the starlike pair with just your thumb on an outstretched arm.

Then, on May 12 all four worlds will be clustered within 6 degrees of each other in the dawn sky. That’s equal to the width of 12 full moon disks side by side—quite a pretty sight.

Faint little Mercury is the third brightest planet in the parade, just to the lower right of the Venus-Jupiter pair. But what makes it a challenging target is that Mercury is five to ten times fainter than Jupiter and much closer to the horizon. The innermost planet will remain a few degrees to the lower right of the brighter Venus throughout this period.

However, ruddy colored Mars is the trickiest to spot because it’s just one-hundredth as bright as Venus. The red planet starts very low in the sky, but eventually catches up with the Venus-Mercury pairing this week.

Your best bet to pick out Mercury and Mars through the bright twilight is by using binoculars when you scan just below Venus.

While this planetary alignment can be glimpsed from around the world, best views will be centered around the tropics, where the planets will shine brighter and higher in the predawn sky.

For observers in mid-latitude regions such as southern Canada, most of the continental U.S., and Europe, the planets will hug the eastern horizon very closely, making it more of a challenge to see the entire set.

No matter where you are, the most important advice is to get a clear, unobstructed view of the low eastern horizon 30 to 45 minutes before your local sunrise.

This dazzling planetary meeting will begin to slowly disband in the second half of May, but as a grand finale to the sky show, our own crescent moon will add to the mood from May 29 to 31, making for a picturesque pose with Jupiter and then Venus.

Sky-watchers haven’t seen a cosmic morning lineup like this since 1996! And if you miss this one, you will have a long wait, because the next big planetary conjunction—which will involve all five of the naked-eye planets, plus the moon—won’t occur until September 8, 2040.

The thin crescent Moon glides past the planets in the final mornings of May. Image courtesy Starry Night Software

Cosmic Gang of Four, Plus Two

While all the hoopla surrounds the four bright planets, there are two other members of the club getting in on the action.

Both Uranus and Neptune sit to the far upper right of the quadruple pack of planets in the southeastern sky. They are both significantly fainter, and so you will need binoculars to glimpse them.

Neither will look all that impressive, appearing as greenish-blue tinted, fuzzy stars. A small telescope, however, will begin to reveal their tiny disks.

Out of the eight official planetary members of our solar system, we are lucky enough to see six huddled together in one small section of the sky.

We live on one of the remaining member worlds, so that leaves one missing: Where is Saturn? The ringed gas giant sits by its lonesome in the evening sky, shining brightly high above the southern horizon.

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.

Comments

  1. [...] Mercury, Mars, Venus, & Jupiter will align this Friday 13th. More info. [...]

  2. [...] newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/05/09/night-sky-new… technorati.com/technology/article/venus-mercury-jupiter-a… [...]

  3. [...] more: newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/05/09/night-sky-new… [...]

  4. [...] was indeed a five-planet alignment in our dawn skies in the month of May and early June. And comets Elenin and McNaught are headed our [...]

  5. JAM
    Sweden
    May 25, 2011, 6:11 pm

    This is very interesting. Im going to watch the night sky until this occurs! Thank you for good info

  6. HATTAB Maha
    Tunisia
    May 17, 2011, 5:43 am

    Very nice,this is magic and so fantastic.

  7. mylrose ching
    May 16, 2011, 9:56 am

    a want to see is pretty

  8. Sakti Soediro
    Bali, Indonesia
    May 16, 2011, 8:46 am

    I saw them! on May 10. right minutes before sunrise from Sanur beach, Bali. Right above the horizon, east sky. At that time I know nothing if those three little stars I saw were Jupiter, Venus & Mercury.

    Andrew! you’re doing awesome work regarding this sky watching activities. Won’t miss you from now and on. Thank youu! :-)

  9. [...] low in the sky, but eventually catches up with the Venus-Mercury pairing this week. Continued- http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/05/09/night-sky-news-see-the-tightest-planet-gathering-… __________________ To view links or images in signatures your post count must be 10 or [...]

  10. Anushka
    Raipur
    May 13, 2011, 11:33 am

    Miracles Dont happen everyday.. Its a treat to watch four worlds so together.. :)

  11. Ray Joseph Gonzales
    Philippines
    May 13, 2011, 7:21 am

    thanks for the info guys. can’t wait to see it.

  12. Ray Joseph Gonzales
    Philippines
    May 13, 2011, 7:13 am

    thanks for the info Natgeo.can”t wait to see it tomorrow.

  13. graciegrace
    australia
    May 13, 2011, 4:51 am

    wasn’t there a crop circle showing a tight planetary alignment with the earth missing?
    yep…the truth is out there :)

  14. Akata Hodgkinson
    USA
    May 12, 2011, 6:43 pm

    This morning i took Tommy (my dog) out. It was just before sunrise and i glanced to the east and saw a very bright light and a dimmer one it was Jupiter and Venus!

  15. NASA
    NASA, Florida, Texas
    May 12, 2011, 5:32 pm

    There is no truth to the rumor that the mass and weight of so many of the planets all in one tiny corner of the solar system will cause it to tilt, and thence cause the Earth to roll at a very fast speed toward them, and either shoot out into space or even hit a couple of them. We have determined that the Earth will not smash into any of them, Repeat, the Earth will not collide with one or more of the other planets in that cluster, as best as we can determine. Thank you.

  16. John Jacob Jinglehimer Schmidt
    Home
    May 12, 2011, 5:18 pm

    I want to see 5 planets and 10 moons collide simultaneously like a billards rack exploding with a deafening *crack* and blinding light.
    Is that too much to ask for?
    Who asked you?
    Jeez!!

  17. [...] Tightest Planet Grouping Yet [...]

  18. possum
    Christchurch New Zealand
    May 12, 2011, 5:13 am

    i managed to see Jupiter , Mercury and Venus this morning from approx 5:30 am till dawn , here in NZ very neat

  19. Jai Sagar
    faridabad
    May 12, 2011, 5:11 am

    I have not seen but I watch the photos and videos of it and I like this

  20. Rocco
    earth
    May 12, 2011, 2:27 am

    I’m so happy it’s finally the end of the world!

  21. Jamie
    Georgia
    May 11, 2011, 9:28 pm

    Cool Beans…I so hope that I remember to go outside and see this!!

  22. Alex
    East Coast Australia
    May 11, 2011, 6:42 pm

    0430.. Star Log Date 12 :05:2011 it was all to much …

  23. Shriya
    May 11, 2011, 6:18 pm

    Can all the people around the world se this phonomena?

  24. Luis Matias
    Lorain, Ohio
    May 11, 2011, 6:06 pm

    I wonder if you can see it in Ohio. Anyways the funny thing s this is going to happen on my 20th birthday tomorrow !

  25. Ahmed
    Egypt
    May 11, 2011, 5:44 pm

    Can I see them from egypt??

  26. Brian
    NH
    May 11, 2011, 4:00 pm

    Order of spheres: Earth, The Moon, Venus, Mercury, The Sun, Mars, Jupiter

  27. florante
    dublin, ireland
    May 11, 2011, 3:49 pm

    planetary alignment according to ‘mayan calendar’ is equal to doomsday, yet it could be a new beginning….all forces of nature would be so devastating, folks lets pray for the best!!!

  28. [...] Tightest Planet Grouping Yet [...]

  29. luis martinez
    mendoza , argentina
    May 11, 2011, 1:19 pm

    Thank you for the news .It´s a lifetime sight….

  30. K0ckii
    somewhere in california
    May 11, 2011, 1:12 pm

    i cant wait to see this!!!!!!!!

  31. bloom
    mauritius
    May 11, 2011, 11:54 am

    i live in mauritius.i think i’m one of the most luckiest mauritian as i am among those who has seen the three planets(jupiter, mercury and venus). in fact every morning at 5.30 i look at the clear sky but today before going to college i saw the 3 planets nearer than ever.

  32. mary grace quiliza
    manila, philippines
    May 11, 2011, 11:38 am

    wow!!! thats awesome! 4 cluster planet plus the moon will have the show in the sky… another phenomenon..so magical!!! hope i could see them too..cant wait to see them..need to set my alarm now……Happy viewing to all !!!!!

  33. antonette
    Philippines
    May 11, 2011, 11:35 am

    wow!!!

  34. nobody
    Male' , Maldives
    May 11, 2011, 10:08 am

    wish we could see it here too….it will surely become the paradise on earth.

  35. xmslient
    qingdao china
    May 11, 2011, 8:50 am

    brilliant!

  36. [...] morning the sight of the predawn rendezvous Jupiter and Venus, was really great. The two brightest planets were less than one degree apart in [...]

  37. Cat
    China Shanghai
    May 11, 2011, 8:00 am

    I want to see it , but the weather in Shanghai isn’t very fine for these days, maybe we don’t have a good luck to see it.

  38. ishwor bhetwal
    Australia
    May 11, 2011, 6:50 am

    i live in Sydney Australia, i wake up at 5.30 am to go to work. i used to see two bright stars on the east just before sunrise. but from some days i saw 2 more around. i took my iphone, opened the PLANETS App, then i knew they were mars, venus, jupiter and mercury. i found myself one of the lucky ones to have the chance to see all four that close (even with open eyes).

  39. Roland H
    London
    May 11, 2011, 6:16 am

    Great article!

    If you are interested in observing the planets, I recommend you to read this article too. Good instructions!

    http://skywatchingworld.com/planets-in-may-2011-northern-hemisphere/

  40. ebbadet
    australia
    May 11, 2011, 5:50 am

    have to wake up earlier, don’t wanna miss that magical moment………….

  41. Afnan
    singapore
    May 11, 2011, 5:45 am

    Why not Friday, the 13 May 2011?

  42. Kwazi
    South Africa
    May 11, 2011, 5:06 am

    Dose this mean it the end of the world

  43. Gabriel
    Ghana
    May 11, 2011, 4:48 am

    It was such amazing gift I received this morning.
    Thanks for the explanation.

  44. Jenn
    Philippines
    May 11, 2011, 2:40 am

    I’m so excited. I don’t want to miss this phenomenon. :)

  45. kk
    Singapore
    May 11, 2011, 1:52 am

    Can we see it in Sinapore? 12th May is tomorrow!

  46. duoduo
    china
    May 11, 2011, 12:41 am

    want to see

  47. patstar
    south Texas
    May 11, 2011, 12:39 am

    wow another thing to be about.

  48. lisa Callahan
    VB Arkansas
    May 10, 2011, 7:56 pm

    Wow this is amazing and plan on getting my happy butt up to see this beautiful sight.

  49. rebie
    south africa
    May 10, 2011, 5:01 pm

    love to see them

  50. Area-51 employee
    A-51
    May 10, 2011, 3:51 pm

    watch it in 3D! cool =)

  51. Sheila
    CANADA (Toronto, Ontario)
    May 10, 2011, 11:05 am

    Thanks so much for sharing this info. Can’t wait to check it out!

  52. lucypacchia
    livingston, newnjersey
    May 10, 2011, 9:28 am

    It’s awesome

  53. Sylvester
    Kenya
    May 10, 2011, 7:15 am

    Its gonna b beautiful.i wish i had a binoculars.all ta same i will wake up early

  54. Sylvester
    Kenya
    May 10, 2011, 7:12 am

    Its gonna b beautiful.i wish i had a binoculars.all ta same i will wake us early

  55. Gaby
    Romania
    May 10, 2011, 2:41 am

    wow that’s amazing , this can be seen from romania too?? :D

    • Andrew Fazekas
      May 10, 2011, 12:25 pm

      Everyone around the world can see these planets in the morning sky – for those close to the tropics the planets will appear higher in the sky than for those observers in higher latitudes.

  56. kristina kosmides
    fremont ca
    May 10, 2011, 1:41 am

    Just like the planets, we follow their lead in clustering together.
    The cosmic gang of four plus two is very symbolic in its missing .

  57. alex orlando hernandez oliva
    tegucigalpa honduras
    May 10, 2011, 1:13 am

    me gustaria que la informacion sea en español gracias. y me gutar la informacion que me enviar a mi correo

  58. Mavuto
    Malawi
    May 10, 2011, 12:06 am

    I’l try locating it tomorror. I didn’t know there’s fun in the dark

  59. GLENNA
    Earth
    May 9, 2011, 11:44 pm

    No site like a clustered sky!

  60. pramod jirapure
    india
    May 9, 2011, 11:08 pm

    happy to see the four bright planets. thanx for infomative info on it and their position……

  61. twinkle
    india
    May 9, 2011, 11:06 pm

    thats really awesome ……i was waiting for this to happen ……………i guess this would be a great oppertunity for young aspirants like us to admire

  62. Steve
    USA
    May 9, 2011, 11:06 pm

    Why don’t you have a way to email this article to someone? That’s a real shortcoming. I expected more from Nat Geo.

  63. lorie a. juan
    asia-philippines
    May 9, 2011, 8:26 pm

    we can see that in here ???? asia….

  64. SGM LARRY J TOMES (ret)
    Louisville, Kentucky
    May 9, 2011, 8:03 pm

    Some things are outta this World.

  65. ari tri wibowo
    magelang city
    May 9, 2011, 7:26 pm

    i hope everyone see the miracle moment.

  66. kris avila
    riyadh,saudi arabia
    May 9, 2011, 7:04 pm

    i hope no cathastrophic happened.

  67. Tom
    UK
    May 9, 2011, 6:54 pm

    Thanks for sharing guys :) I just have to repost this to my blog ;)

  68. jim
    Mecca, Ca.
    May 9, 2011, 6:34 pm

    Awesome, unfortantly that means earth quakes and more Valcano’s going off!

  69. Alan
    villa san marsial , entre rios, agentina
    May 9, 2011, 6:08 pm

    muy interesante esto che..

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