For the last week of January and all of February 2016, all five naked eye planets can be seen in the morning sky (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) at the same time. These are the only planets visible without a telescope or at least binoculars, and the only planets known to any of our ancestors prior to the discovery of Uranus in 1781.
Rare Chance to See All Five Bright Planets at Once in Predawn Sky!
This winter 2016 line-up of all five naked eye planets is the first time since January 2005 that this phenomenon has occurred. The phenomenon will repeat this August 2016, with the same five planets visible right after sunset, from August 13-19.
However, that summer 2016 showing occurs when Venus, Mercury and Jupiter are so close to the horizon at dusk that it will be a challenge spotting them; even with good viewing conditions you’ll have mere minutes to see the planets. So you will probably have better luck seeing the gang of five right now, in January and February 2016, even if it means getting up early! Prime viewing for this winter predawn show is from 5:30 – 6:15 a.m., January 26th till late February, just before our winter’s dawn.
At any time in those weeks, go out shortly before dawn light (5:30 a.m. or so). The planets Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars will be easily visible; the trickier but doable challenge is to find Mercury, tucked down below Venus through this period.
Start your planet hunt by looking for Venus low in the east, where the sun will soon rise. Venus will be about 1.5 fist diameters above the horizon and incredibly bright. Venus shines at minus 4, far brighter than any star. It rises around 5 am in early February and around 5:35 a.m. at the end of the month. It looks like an airplane coming in for a landing.
Now look way over in the western sky to find Jupiter. At 6 a.m. Jupiter will be halfway up in the western sky (late January/early February); by late February, it will be quite low in the west by 6 a.m., about twenty degrees (“the width of two fists”) above the west horizon. At minus 2 magnitude, Jupiter will be the brightest dot up there except for Venus; and like Venus pops out easily.
Having found the two brightest planets as your landmarks, draw a line from Jupiter all the way across the sky to Venus. Along that long line between the two bright planets, look for Mars, which will be halfway between Venus and Jupiter. Mars is an amber-colored dot, and will grow in brightness during the month; it shines at 0.8 magnitude at the end of January and significantly brighter, at magnitude 0.2, by the end of February.
Having found Mars, then draw a line from Mars to Venus, which again is low and blazing in the east. In late January and early February, the planet Saturn will be almost exactly halfway between Mars and Venus; in later February, Saturn will appear much closer to Mars than the Venus. Saturn stays the same magnitude, 0.51, for the month. You can compare its brightness to Mars as February goes on; Mars is dimmer than Saturn in early February, is exactly the same brightness as Saturn on the morning for February 18, and will be significantly brighter than Saturn by month’s end.
Note, by the way, that Mars is above Saturn. There is another amber dot this is the right of Saturn that is roughly the same brightness and color as Mars. This is a star in Scorpius whose orangey similarity of the planet Mars led to the star being called “Antares,” which means ‘rival of Mars’ in Greek.
For all of late January and February, you should have no problem locating these four planets in the predawn sky as long as the skies are clear. The tricky and special part of this is finding Mercury, the elusive planet whose spotting will ensure you’ve seen the entire rare parade of the five naked eye planets. From around January 25 to late February, use Venus and look below that planet to locate Mercury.
From about January 25 on, you’ll find Mercury to the lower left of Venus, shining brightly at 0.6 magnitude. It will be one fist’s diameter below Venus in late January. While Mercury will be as bright in magnitude as Mars, Mercury will be harder to spot since it’s right down on the east horizon. You’ll need a flat horizon to see the planet – looking over the water or from a hilltop is good. Mercury rises in late January around 5:45 a.m.
As the weeks go on, Mercury continues to hover below Venus and will appear to get closer and closer to Venus; around the 10 th of February Mercury will be only about four degrees below Venus, the width of two fingers. By the 10 th the planet Mercury rises by 5:35 a.m., the earliest time of its rising for this appearance.
By the end of the month, Mercury will still be huddling below Venus, though day will breaks just a few minutes after Mercury’s rising. Here in the Islands, you may still catch Mercury all the way till the end of February; further north, such as the continental US, the alignment of heavens is such that you will probably lose Mercury to the naked eye a week earlier than that. By the 29 th of February, regardless of where you are on earth, Mercury is pretty much gone from sight.
Throughout these weeks, the window to see Mercury and thus to see the ‘complete the set’ of five planets is narrow; you’ll have roughly 30 minutes, centered around 5:45 a.m., to see it.
The moon can help mark the planets. On January 28, the moon is just to the left of Jupiter; on January 28 th and 29, the moon is between Jupiter and Mars; and on the 31 st, the moon is just to the right of Mars. The moon then returns to these planets at the end of February, shining next to Jupiter on February 23 and 24 and next to Mars on the 29th.
Planet By Planet
Mercury huddles below Venus for the entire month of February. Rises at 5:45 a.m. in late January, 5:35 a.m. around the February 10, and not till 6 a.m. at the end of the month.
Throughout the month, Venus hovers low in the eastern sky before break of day. At minus 4 magnitude, it outshines all other sky dots. Venus rises at 5 a.m. in early February and at 5:35 a.m. at the end.
The red planet rises in the east at 1 a.m. in early February and around midnight at the end of February. Mars brightens steadily through the month.
In early February Jupiter rises in the east by 9:30 p.m. and shines in the southwest as day dawns. By the end of the month it rises at dusk and sets at dawn. The planet shines at minus 2 magnitude, brighter than any star.
The ringed planet rises at 3 a.m. at the start of the month and at 1:30 a.m. at the end of February. The planet is quite bright, at 0.5 magnitude.
Other Sky Events in February
February 8 – Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year occurs two new moons before the first day of spring, which occurs on March 20 this year.
February Sky Map
After a drought of months in the evening sky, a planet returns: Jupiter is rising in the east, below Leo the Lion.
While planet appearances vary from year to year, the constellations come back at the same times every year, and we do have the Big Dipper back in our evening skies in February. Orion is dead-center in the sky, surrounded by the other brilliant winter constellations. We don’t have the Southern Cross in the evening – that won’t occur till spring – but we do have the False Cross just rising. It’s an asterism (a recognizable starry pattern that’s not part of the official 88 constellations), assembled out of two stars from Vela the Sail and two from Carina the Keel.
The real Southern Cross rises in early February at 1:30 a.m. and is due south at 4:15 a.m.; by month’s end it rises at 11:45 p.m. and is due south by 2:30 a.m.
Moon Phases (Hawaiian Time Zone):
Third Quarter: January 31
New: February 8
First Quarter: February 14
Full: February 22