Peekin' At The Planetary Peep Show

Nature

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY JAN 22, 2016

For the first time in more than a decade, stargazers can delight in a rare astronomical alignment bringing five planets into unaided visible range in the night sky. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter appeared in alignment two days ago and astronomers forecast the phenomenon to continue until mid-February.

“You’ve got to be an early bird to catch this one,” said Jeff Rogers, director of the Bishop Planetarium at South Florida Museum. The best time would be immediately pre-dawn, he says. “Especially if you want to see Mercury.” The most difficult to see of the five aligned, Mercury appears low on the eastern horizon but still visible without the aid of a telescope.

Arcing across the sky from Mercury at the eastern horizon, Venus appears in close proximity, followed by Saturn, then Mars and finally Jupiter almost directly overhead. With Neptune and Uranus never orbiting so close to Earth as to be visible with the naked eye, this alignment represents near the pinnacle of naked-eye planetary observation. As Rogers put it, “This is the feast.”

Earthlings will have until around Feb. 20 to check out this cosmic phenomenon, with some astronomers estimating peak visibility near Feb. 4, leaving plenty of time for planning. But don’t worry about heading into the wilderness for a good view. “You should be fine in town,” said Rogers. Just make sure you have a good view of the eastern horizon. 

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