It’s a viral story making the rounds on the internet and social media. Allegedly, a rare astronomical alignment will allow skywatchers to see 5(!) planets in the evening sky all at once this week. Sound too good to be true? Well, there’s a reason…
First things first. Yes, there are actually 5 planets “visible” in the evening sky looking west this week. Note the quotes I attached to “visible”. Many articles are using that word quite loosely. Technically, with a strong enough telescope, you can see a whole host of amazing celestial objects in the night sky on any given evening. But that won’t exactly appease most of you heading out tonight (or any night this week) expecting to see a whopping 5 planets with nothing more than the naked eye.
From horizon to zenith, Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, Uranus & Mars are all out there looking west. Yes, I count 5. But there’s a catch. Several, in fact. Let’s start with Uranus. This planet is almost certainly not going to visible without optical help. Good binoculars at a minimum, preferably a telescope. Really far away and very dim, you’re not seeing this one looking out your window over your neighbor Edna’s house, especially with those Christmas lights she still has up. Right off the bat, we’ve knocked our best case scenario down to 4 planets.
Both Jupiter and Mercury will be snuggled very low on the horizon. That light must pass through a larger chunk of atmosphere which will serve to make seeing them quite difficult. Mercury is even dimmer than Jupiter, suffering from the same low horizon issue. If we want to be technical, sure, you can see them. The majority of you are not going to be in a position to see over trees, houses, etc. & in a dark enough location to pull them out with the naked eye. Even if you could, you’ll likely question if what you’re looking at is actually a planet or your mind playing tricks on you.
Venus is the big winner of the bunch. Super bright and easy to spot. Mars also shines brightly enough to easily get picked out of the sky glitter, shining with a slight orange hue. That’s 2 planets you’ll easily be able to identify without issue. We can unequivocally say that you’ll be able to readily spot 2 planets in the night sky this week. If you want to twist my leg, I’ll give you the other two horizon huggers. But I do so begrudgingly. I can’t give you 5, however.
Keep in mind, all the above information is only valid for those who attempt to see things with no visual help. Have a pair of good binoculars or a telescope? You’re in luck! That’s how you bring out all 5 and maximize the show. Shy of that, it’s best to temper your expectations, no matter how savory the article you read on Facebook and Twitter made this sound. Happy viewing!
Chief Meteorologist Eric Snitil