From June 16 on, starting around 4 a.m., look to the southeast. Strung in a line stretching from the east toward the west shine all five of the planets visible to the unaided eye — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — and our waning gibbous moon as well.
Mercury and Venus form the pair nearest the horizon while Mars and Jupiter hang out higher in the southeast. Saturn shines highest of all, almost directly south.
Tips for spotting all five
Mercury doesn’t stray far from the sun and can be challenging to spot, hiding in the glow of twilight or lost in the sun’s glare. To find Mercury you’ll need a clear eastern horizon, free of obstacles like trees, buildings and hills. Fortunately, brilliant Venus, the brightest of the planets, is nearby, and can be used as a signpost to spot the elusive innermost planet.
Center your sights on Venus, then look down and to the left about 10 degrees, roughly the width of your fist. There, you may glimpse a fiery spark in the growing twilight: Mercury. If you are successful, enjoy the moment, for it is a rare sighting!
On June 24, the waning moon will move farther east and diminish to a delicate crescent, staging a finale for this rare and beautiful assembly of celestial orbs.
In the days after, the moon will dive into the dawn, and Mercury will disappear quickly into the sun’s glow, followed in August by Venus. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will remain prominent well into autumn, but spread farther and farther apart over the weeks, dissolving their close partnership of summer.
How rare is this alignment?
All five visible planets gathering in the same patch of sky occurs, on average, every 20 years.
Matchups of two planets happen regularly. As the planets circle the sun at their various orbital velocities, they pass each other like cars on a freeway moving at different speeds. Mars makes a complete circuit around the ecliptic — the great circle that the sun and planets travel along as seen from Earth — about every two years, reliably buzzing Jupiter and Saturn each time.
The inner planets Mercury and Venus — closer to the sun than Earth — move more quickly, emerging from the sun’s glare in the morning and evening in seasonal turns, cyclically lining up with more distant planets as they go.
Sometimes these pairings are breathtakingly close, bringing a pair of planets within a thumb’s width of each other, or closer. Venus and Jupiter had such a rendezvous in late April, passing less than half a degree from each other as seen from Earth.
But the chance to see all five of the visible planets in one vista is rare. The celestial math of the planets’ dance only brings them together every couple of decades, and when the sun gets into the act we may not see the performance at all. The last time these planets clustered together, in May of 2000, the sun was right in the middle of the stage and outshined all the other luminaries.
So June brings a rare opportunity to gaze upon all the visible planets, compare their brightness and color, and appreciate the celestial choreography that allows us to witness such splendor. You need to get up early to enjoy the show, but it’s worth it!
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