For the first time in eleven years all five “naked-eye planets”, those able to be viewed without a telescope or binoculars, will be visible in the early morning sky just before dawn, Jan. 20 – Feb. 20. During the month the Moon will pass by each of the planets and observers in the Northern Hemisphere will be able to see a comet on its way out of the solar system for good. The next such alignment will occur in August but in the evening sky and then not again until 2018.
Viewing will be best forty-five minutes before dawn. Venus, the brightest nighttime object after the Moon will appear in the southeast sky and Jupiter, the second brightest planet, will be visible in the southwest.
Mars is a small red dot and will be halfway between Venus and Jupiter, but not nearly as bright as those two. Saturn is fainter still and will be halfway between Venus and Mars. Mercury is the toughest to spot due to its proximity to the sun. Look for it between Venus and the horizon.
Comet Catalina was discovered in 2013 and will pass closest to Earth this week. A perturbed object from the Oort Cloud, it has already passed the sun. It is traveling so fast at 166,000 kph (103,000 mph, three times the New Horizon’s spacecraft’s speed) that it will eventually exit our solar system completely. To locate it as well as the planets’ exact location among the stars, consult the following on-line resources:
For exact times of sunrise, the U.S. Naval Observatory’s tool is here. You can download an astronomy app here, or consult popular astronomy websites such as Astronomy.com, EarthSky.org, and Sky & Telescope. Here is a list of Planetariums in the US, most of which should be putting on shows this month and next featuring the alignment.