If you’re looking to check off sightings of several planets in the solar system, you’re in luck: The planets have aligned. This week, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Uranus will all appear in a small patch of the night sky. Though the array will be clearest on Tuesday, several of the planets will remain observable for the next few weeks, writes CNN’s Jackie Wattles.
The five planets, all visible at once, will be “very pretty,” Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, tells CBS News’s Christopher Brito. And they should be fairly easy to spot from anywhere on Earth with clear skies in the west.
Periodically, several planets end up on the same side of the sun from our perspective here on Earth. When that happens, they might not all appear near each other in our sky, according to the astronomy guide app Star Walk. But on certain occasions, such as this week, they form a line, allowing for a unique viewing experience.
“You get to see pretty much the whole solar system in one night,” University of California, Los Angeles astronomer Rory Bentley tells Popular Science’s Briley Lewis.
To have the best chance at seeing this “planetary parade,” viewers should try to find the least obstructed view of the Western sky with limited light pollution. This could be over a body of water, with as few horizon-obscuring buildings and trees as possible. Since some of the planets will appear very low, this is important.
For this celestial lineup, timing is everything. Venus will be the first planet to look for after sunset, easily identifiable by how bright it will appear. Then, viewers will have a narrow window of opportunity to lay eyes on Mercury and Jupiter—these planets will show up low in the sky about 20 to 25 minutes after sunset and disappear beneath the horizon a mere 25 to 30 minutes later. Of the two, Jupiter will be the brighter one and will appear on the left. Try scanning back and forth across the horizon with binoculars to spot this duo, writes Space.com’s Joe Rao.
To close out the planetary quintet, find Mars near the moon, appearing as a reddish orange dot. Finally, a faint Uranus will lie just above and to the left of Venus.
Among the planets, Venus, Jupiter and Mars will be the easiest to see with the naked eye, while Uranus and Mercury might be best viewed through binoculars or a telescope, Cooke tells CBS News.
Planetary Parade Post! Look up Tuesday night for an out-of-this-world sight. Five planets - Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, Uranus & Mars - will be marching across the sky this week. The best time to observe this astronomical phenomenon is just after sunset on 3/28. : starwalkapp pic.twitter.com/sF3HSxjLqU— Frost Science (@FrostScience) March 27, 2023
This week, keen skywatchers will be able to spot more than just planets: Star cluster M35 will also appear in the sky, located to the left of Mars, per Space.com. This cluster in the Gemini constellation is sometimes regarded as one of the best celestial objects to observe, because with a good pair of binoculars, viewers can make out a handful of its stars, along with the light of about 200 others. It will be an added bonus in this stellar phenomenon—in addition, of course, to the moon.
Historically, people have superstitiously and pseudo-scientifically linked planetary alignments with natural disasters or global destruction. In 1919, an engineer stoked widespread panic with false claims that an alignment of planets would lead to dangerous sunspots and Earthly catastrophe, Discover magazine’s Jennifer Walter reported in 2021. And in 2015, rumors circulated online that a lineup of Pluto, Earth and Jupiter would cause gravity to momentarily cease. Later in the year, people said another alignment might cause a massive earthquake. To those spreading the misinformation, Eric Mack wrote for CNET, “Silly. You’re grounded. Go to your room and no internet for a year.”
Scientifically speaking, alignments of the planets are nothing more than nice coincidences.
“It’s kind of like when your car’s odometer shows a bunch of numbers—like it reaches 44,444,” Cameron Hummels, a computational astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology, tells CNN. “It’s cool and unusual. It just doesn’t really mean anything.”
If you happen to miss this alignment, keep looking up: 2023’s dazzling celestial events will continue to impress in the coming months. In mid- to late April, for example, the Earth will pass through a cloud of debris left behind by the comet Thatcher, creating the radiant annual Lyrid meteor shower. And groups of planets will align at several other times this year; the next one will occur on April 11, when Mercury, Uranus, Venus and Mars come together for a brief time in the evening, according to Star Walk.