This month, four planets, along with the moon, will align. While not rare, this type of event doesn’t occur often. It has only happened five times in the past 17 years — which makes it worth viewing. Here’s where to look, when to look, what to look for and what equipment you need to see this event.
What does it mean when planets align?
If you read a lot of science fiction or watch a lot of movies about space, you might be inclined to believe planetary alignment is a linear phenomenon. That is not the case. You cannot take a ruler and draw a straight line through the four planets that are aligning this month. When astronomers talk about planetary alignment, all it means is the planets will be visible in the same general region of the sky.
Which planets are aligning?
Planetary alignment isn’t something that happens fast like an eclipse. It takes time. As the planets orbit, they gradually fall into alignment. For example, Saturn, Mars and Venus have been in alignment for over a month. Roughly a week ago, Jupiter joined the crowd. During the last week of April, you will also be able to see the moon in the predawn sky. For those in the ideal location in the Northern Hemisphere, such as the coast of North Carolina where there is a clear southeastern view of the horizon over the ocean, in the second week of June, you may be able to see Mercury as well. Unfortunately, most of us will not be able to view this phenomenon, so right now is the best chance to see this celestial event.
Where and when to look to see the planetary alignment
To see the alignment this month, you will need to be facing southeast and looking closer to the horizon — not up overhead. The less obstructed your view of the horizon is, the better your chances are of seeing all four planets. As far as timing, experts say your best viewing window will open roughly 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise.
What to look for
If you are new to astronomy, you might desire a few tips to help you find what you are looking for in that predawn hour. The first and most important thing to remember is you are looking for planets, not stars. Planets are easier to locate because there are much fewer of them than stars. The way to tell you are looking at a planet is simple: The glow will remain steady. Stars, on the other hand, twinkle.
To find the four planets, look for Mars first. This will be the easiest to locate, as it will appear as an orange dot. Looking up and to the right, the slightly larger white dot is Saturn. Looking down and to the left, you will see two more white dots. These will be Venus and Jupiter, respectively. Depending on when you look, Venus and Jupiter may be very close or they may overlap.
What you need to see the planets in alignment
While you will be able to see some planets with your naked eye, to have the best experience, it is recommended that you use something that can enhance your vision.
The Barska is a refractor telescope that features coated glass for brighter images. It has interchangeable eyepieces with a 3x Barlow lens, an equatorial mount with setting circles for tracking and a red dot finderscope. Purchase also includes a tripod and astronomy software.
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This beginner’s telescope is designed for the first-time user. The Celestron is a versatile model that features smooth and accurate operation along with two eyepieces and a tripod with a German equatorial mount. It’s lightweight and portable, allowing you to easily take it with you wherever you go.
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For the ultimate in portability, consider this monocular telescope. It is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand but powerful enough to provide a satisfactory viewing experience. The Adasion has a large eyepiece for comfortable viewing, and it is compatible with a Bluetooth remote shutter, which allows you to take photos with just a single click.
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If you prefer binoculars, this powerful model offers low light functionality with a crisp focus and 25x magnification. It is suitable for astronomical viewing and has long eye relief, which is ideal for people who wear glasses. The protective rubber coating also ensures a secure grip.
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For kids ages 10 and up who want to view this celestial event, the National Geographic telescope is an affordable option that is specifically designed for young astronomers. It comes with a tripod with an accessories tray and a clip to secure your phone. The thoughtful dew shield protects the telescope from moisture and debris.
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