Yes! You can still see five planets at once! Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter are all up before dawn. All five will be visible together through mid-February. The moon swings by the planets in the first week of February, pointing them out for your viewing pleasure. Find out more at our post: See all five bright planets simultaneously! Follow the links below to learn more about the February planets.
Mercury, below Venus, in predawn/dawn sky. In the final week of January 2016, Mercury climbed far enough from the sunrise to be seen with the other four morning planets – Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Saturn – to showcase all five visible planets in the same sky since the year 2005. Look for all five visible planets to adorn the predawn/dawn sky throughout the first half of February. Be sure to use the waning crescent moon to guide you to Mercury (and Venus) on February 5 and February 6.
Mercury will be at its best in the morning sky for several weeks, centered around February 7, 2016. At this juncture, Mercury rises about 80 minutes before the sun at mid-northern latitudes. At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Mercury rises a whopping two hours (120 minutes) before sunrise. As always, no matter where you live, binoculars help out with any Mercury quest.
Although Mercury’s morning apparition counts as a good one for both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, it definitely favors the Southern Hemisphere. Mercury might be visible for the whole month of February, 2016 in the Southern Hemisphere.
After a lengthy apparition in the morning sky, Mercury will finally swing back into the evening sky on March 23, 2016.
Venus, brightest planet, east before sunrise. No matter where you are on Earth, here’s a very fun observation to make this month: Venus before dawn. Venus is the brightest planet and third-brightest sky object overall, after the sun and moon. When it’s visible, it’s very, very prominent in our sky.
So step outside some early morning, and look low in your southeast sky to see the dazzling planet Venus. Look for Saturn above Venus and for Mercury below.
Venus is rapidly sinking toward the sunrise this month, as viewed from mid-northern latitudes. Venus starts out the month rising about two hours before the sun, yet by the month’s end, only rises about an hour before sunrise. From temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Venus rises better than two hours before the sun nearly all month long.
During the first half of February 2016, Venus sinks toward the sunrise while Mercury climbs toward Venus. The two worlds meet up for a close pairing on February 13. So for several days, from around February 11 to 15, look for Venus and Mercury to fit, or nearly fit, into one binocular field of view.
Jupiter, second-brightest and westernmost planet. Jupiter is the first planet to appear in the sky, rising at early-to-mid evening at the beginning of the month. By the month’s end, Jupiter will actually rise at dusk or nightfall (about one-half hour after sunset) from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
From around the world, the king planet Jupiter and the red planet Mars both shine respectably high in the February predawn sky. Closer to the horizon, though high enough to be viewed with relative ease, Saturn shines quite some ways above Venus and Mercury.
If you have binoculars or a telescope, it’s fairly easy to see Jupiter’s four major moons, which look like pinpricks of light on or near the same plane. They are often called the Galilean moons to honor Galileo, who discovered these great Jovian moons in 1610. In their order from Jupiter, these moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
These moons circle Jupiter around the Jovian equator. In cycles of six years, we view Jupiter’s equator edge-on. So, in 2015, we got to view a number of mutual events involving Jupiter’s moons through a high-powered telescope. Click here or here or here for more details.
Although Jupiter’s axial tilt is only 3o out of perpendicular relative to the ecliptic (Earth’s orbital plane), Jupiter’s axis will tilt enough toward the sun and Earth so that the farthest of these four moons, Callisto, will NOT pass in front of Jupiter or behind Jupiter for a period of about three years, starting in late 2016. During this approximate 3-year period, Callisto will remain “perpetually” visible, alternately swinging “above” and “below” Jupiter.
Click here for a Jupiter’s moons almanac, courtesy of Sky & Telescope.
Mars shines between Venus and Jupiter. Mars is nowhere as bright as Venus or Jupiter. Even so, modestly-bright Mars is easily visible in the predawn sky. Mars shines in between Venus, the sky’s brightest planet, and Jupiter, the sky’s second-brightest, all month long. Although Mars will be fairly close to Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, you can distinguish Mars from Spica by color. Mars appears ruddy whereas Spica sparkles blue-white. If have difficulty discerning color with the eye alone, try using binoculars.
Let the waning crescent moon help guide your eye to Mars in the morning sky on February 1. Then, to double your fun, watch the moon swing by Mars (and Saturn) at the month’s end, too, as shown on the above sky chart. Mars will eventually catch up with Saturn on August 25, 2016, to stage a conjunction of these two worlds in the August evening sky.
Mars will continue to brighten month by month, until the Red Planet culminates in brightness in May, 2016. Believe it or not, Mars will be about as brilliant then as Jupiter is now!
Saturn, above Venus, visible before dawn. Saturn shines as a morning planet all through February. From around the world, the ringed planet starts the month rising nearly four hours before the sun. By the month’s end, Saturn rises about five hours before sunrise. Saturn will continue to climb upward, away from the sunrise point on the horizon, while Venus falls in the direction of sunrise in the February morning sky.
Watch for the moon to swing by Saturn on or near February 3, as shown on the sky chart above.
Saturn, the farthest world that you can easily view with the eye alone, appears golden in color. It shines with a steady light. Binoculars don’t reveal Saturn’s gorgeous rings, by the way. For that, you need a small telescope. But binoculars will enhance Saturn’s golden color.
Saturn’s rings are inclined at about 26o from edge-on in February 2016, exhibiting their northern face. Next year, in October 2017, the rings will open most widely, displaying a maximum inclination of 27o. As with so much in space (and on Earth), the appearance of Saturn’s rings from Earth is cyclical. In the year 2025, the rings will appear edge-on as seen from Earth. After that, we’ll begin to see the south side of Saturn’s rings, to increase to a maximum inclination of 27o by May, 2032.
What do we mean by visible planet? By visible planet, we mean any solar system planet that is easily visible without an optical aid and that has been watched by our ancestors since time immemorial. In their outward order from the sun, the five visible planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets are visible in our sky because their disks reflect sunlight, and these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. They’re often bright! You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.
Bottom line: Saturn, Venus, Mars and Jupiter light up the predawn/dawn sky all month long. Mercury recently joined the string of morning planets in the final week of January, and all five visible planets will continue to adorn the morning sky throughout the first few weeks of February.