Five planets align for Sierra Nevada stargazers
February 25, 2016
Amateur stargazers have the opportunity to witness an unusual sight in the night sky for the next few weeks, but they'll have to get up early to make it happen.
Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter can be found lined up in a shallow arc in the eastern sky about 45 minutes prior to sunrise, an alignment that hasn't happened since 2005.
"Mercury will be close to the Sun, over in the east, and Jupiter will be over in the west, with Venus, Saturn, and Mars between the two," according to a NASA blog post. "Pluto is near Mercury, but is invisible to the eye, requiring a telescope for viewing."
Despite some of the obstacles for Sierra Nevada astronomers, namely weather and mountains, the formation has been delighting area sky watchers.
"I kind of like this event because these are the naked-eye planets," said Tony Berendsen, owner of Tahoe Star Tours, noting the planets are the ones known to civilization prior to the invention of the telescope.
"It's awesome, and it's a thing you can do in your backyard," said Dan Ruby, director of Reno's Fleischmann Planetarium, of the alignment of planets.
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While a good set of eyes provides the necessary equipment for viewing, a set of binoculars will help people see Mercury and also provide glimpses of heavenly bodies like four of Jupiter's moons, Berendsen said.
"Jupiter and Saturn are really easy to see. Mars is a bit more challenging because it is a bit dark," he added.
Venus is another relatively easy planet to spot. One the trickiest of the planets to see, Mercury is at its farthest point from the horizon right now and will be easiest to see for the next few days. Mercury will get harder and harder to view, but the alignment of planets is expected to last until Feb. 20.
"Right now is kind of the best time to try and see Mercury," Ruby said.
Places like Tahoe City and Kings Beach, with views over the lake looking east, are probably the best for viewing the planets, Berendsen said, although anywhere that allows a glimpse of the eastern horizon will work. Berendsen recommended using a astronomy app, such as SkyPortal to help locate the planets.
Those not prone to getting up before sunrise don't need to fear missing out. A similar alignment of the five planets will take place this summer, with peak viewing time around Aug. 5.
"The same show is coming back in the summer in the evening," Ruby said.
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