If you've been waiting for the planets to align—now is your moment.
For the first time in more than a decade, five planets—Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter—will be simultaneously visible (in that order) to the naked eye. They will line up across the sky, with Jupiter in the North and Mercury low in the East, until about February 20. For newbie stargazers, it might help to think about their positioning in terms of runners on a track, says Jason Kendall, who is on the board of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York.
"Imagine you put a really fast runner on the inside lane, and put a really slow runner in the outside lane, and you fill each lane with runners," he says. "Eventually, they’ll line up like they did at the start. They won't be at the start, but they’ll be lined up."
Those watching in the Northern Hemisphere will be able to see the planets every morning between 5 and 6 a.m. EST, though some planets will be easier to spot than others. Venus and Jupiter are bright and easiest to see, Mars is distinctly red, and Saturn is recognizable by its dim yellowish color. The tricky one, Kendall says, is Mercury.
"Mercury is very low in the sky and it's hard to catch," Kendall says. "If you want to see all five, your best bet is to get out the door at 5 a.m., and dress warmer than you think you should. If there's an extraordinarily clear sky and you look low to the East, you have 10 to 15 minutes to try to catch it."
Even when all five are aligned, it can be difficult to distinguish planets from stars. If you don't have binoculars, Kendall recommends holding out your thumb at arms length, closing one eye, then passing your thumb over what you think is a planet. If it blinks, it's a star. If it dims, it's a planet. You can also reach out to your local NASA Night Sky Network club and ask if someone can help you.
Not keen on waking up before dawn? You’re in luck. The planets will line up once again in early August, but this time they'll be visible in the evening sky. And as beautiful as it is, it will likely happen many more times.
"There's nothing spiritual or magical or other-worldly about it," Kendall says. "It's just rare and pretty. That's what's fun about stargazing."