Holiday Sky Show: Five Planets to Shine in Predawn

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 16, 2004

A heavenly show awaits stargazers this holiday season: Over the next few weeks sky-watchers can spot five planets in the same nighttime sky.

The planets, visible to the naked eye, will appear spread across the sky in the minutes before dawn. Mercury, Venus, and Mars will shine in the east, while Jupiter will hover overhead, and Saturn will hang in the west.

"It is something that happens every so often," said Deborah Byrd, producer and host of the Earth and Sky syndicated radio series. "Sky-watchers know how special that is."

All five planets were visible in the evening sky in late March and early April. But they won't be seen together again, at least with the naked eye, until 2016.

No special skills or equipment are needed to observe the celestial show.

"You just use your eyeballs. You don't need any binoculars or a telescope," said Kelly Beatty, an editor with Sky and Telescope and Night Sky magazines. "It's [visible] all over North America and over much of the civilized world. Most everyone will be seeing this."

Follow the Sun

Viewers are advised to first look to the east some 45 minutes before sunrise.

"That's late enough so that Mercury is high enough above the horizon [to be visible], but not so late that it becomes too bright for viewing," Beatty said.

Planet-spotters should also direct their attention to the path that the sun travels during the day.

"The planets orbit the sun in a more or less flat plane. So they aren't scattered all over the sky but travel across the sky [along] more or less the same path as the sun," Byrd, the radio producer and host, said. "Try to visualize, from your yard for example, where the sun comes up and where it goes down."

Venus and Jupiter should be easiest to spot. With the exception of the moon, they are the brightest objects in the predawn sky. Venus will hang low in the east.

Continued on Next Page >>




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