Amateur astronomers can spend months if not years hoping to catch a glimpse of one of our neighbouring planets in the night sky – and then four come along at once.
And in the coming weeks they could be treated to as many as five as Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus and Mercury line up across the sky for the first time in a decade.
For those lucky enough to catch perfect conditions just before dawn, the five planets may be visible now but the best views are on or around 5 February.
Astronomers were treated to a clear view of four of the five of the planets – Jupiter, Mars, Saturn and Venus over the weekend as the skies over Corfe in Dorset cleared. Sadly Mercury was too low in the sky to be captured on camera, but is expected to join the quartet on or around the 5 February
By that time Mercury will be rising above the horizon a good 80 minutes before dawn at mid northern latitudes.
Astronomers were already treated to a clear view of four of the five of the planets – Jupiter, Mars, Saturn and Venus over the weekend as the skies over Corfe in Dorset cleared.
WHY IT IS NOT AN ‘ALIGNMENT’
Although the planets are forming a line across the sky, this is not technically considered to be an alignment.
Instead the grouping helps to illustrate how the planets sit on roughly the same plane as the Earth as they orbit around the sun.
In an alignment, the planets would line up outwards from the sun.
In this case they are positioned on their orbits in such a way that they form an arc across the same portion of sky.
Sadly Mercury was too low in the sky to be captured on camera.
Each of the planets – which will look like bright stars – should be bright enough to be seen without a telescope or binoculars.
Together they will form a long sweep across the sky from the south east to the south west.
Dr Robert Massey, of the Royal Astronomical Society, said the planets should be visible for until 20 February provided the skies remain clear.
Dr Massey said: ‘There will be a dance of the planets, and now is the time to get out and have a look. It will be well worth getting up for.
‘Looking tonight wouldn’t be bad, but the theoretical best time is around 5 February, when the five planets are joined by a crescent moon.’
Quite the view: Five planets, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter, will be visible in the sky tonight in a rare spectacle not seen since 2005. The celestial show begins this morning and will continue till mid-February
The best time to view the spectacle will be just before dawn, at around 6.45am.
You will not need a telescope, as all the planets will be visible with the naked eye.
HOW TO SEE THE CELESTIAL SHOW
The alignment will take place at around 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise, which in the UK is approximately 6.45am GMT.
It will then be visible at a similar time on the east coast of America – weather permitting.
All five planets will can be seen just before dawn at 6.50am ET on 20 January.
From around the world, Jupiter will be the first planet to appear in the evening to the east.
Next will be Mars, Saturn, Venus and Mercury which rise overnight and early morning.
Hold your arm up in a straight line from the moon to the horizon, and the five planets should line up on that line.
You won’t need a telescope, as all the planets will be visible with the naked eye.
To pick out the planets start with Venus, which will be brightest as it is the closest to Earth.
Mercury will appear at three degrees above the horizon – around three thumb widths with an outstretched arm.
Saturn will have an uneven shape because of its rings, while Mars should have a red tinge, Dr Massey said.
Two stars, Antares and Spica, will also be visible in the same area.
Towards the end of January, the waning Moon will also enter the scene, which could prove useful for helping identify the planets.
It will pass close to Jupiter on the mornings of 27 and 28 January, Mars on 1 February, Saturn on 3 February, Venus on 5 February, and above Mercury on 6 February.
Mercury will be the hardest to spot with the naked eye as it will be very low down, close to the horizon.
Early next month the spectacle is likely to be even better, as the planets will be joined by a crescent moon.
The stars Antares (shown) and Spica will also be visible in the same patch of sky. Uranus and Neptune are the only two planets that won’t be on show. Mid-northern latitudes in Europe and Asia will see the moon somewhat offset in relation to the planets during February, according to EarthSky.org
These planets are visible in our sky because their disks reflect sunlight, and they are relatively nearby planets. Pictured are the distances of the planets from the sun
However, if you manage to miss the planets as they arc across the sky, astronomers will get another chance in August, although they will be harder to spot in summer when the sun rises earlier.
Skywatchers are advised to look for the spectacle away from light pollution, with rural areas ideal.
On 5 May, 2000 a similar grouping of the five planets occurred, accompanied by predictions of extraordinary tides and other cataclysms – although these failed to materialise.
Dr Alan Duffy, research fellow at Swinburne University in Melbourne, told the Australian Geographic that this rare grouping of the planets is ‘essentially a quirk’ of the universe.
All five visible planets to happen to line up is ‘something well worth seeing,’ he said.
A host of stargazing apps, such as Exoplanet, SkEye, and PlanetDroid, could help you find the best place to see the planets in your region.
Dr Robert Massey (pictured), of the Royal Astronomical Society, said the planets will be visible from Britain as long as the skies remain clear. The best time to view the spectacle will be just before dawn, at around 6.45am