Ahead of a rare cosmic treat expected from this weekend till early February during which an alignment of five planets would be visible in the early morning sky with the naked eye, excited astronomers in the Pune have shared tips on how to view the phenomenon that is happening after nearly a decade.
Advising schools to hold camps for students to view the phenomenon, Samir Dhurde, science popularisation officer at Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) at the Savitribai Phule University in Pune, says, “It is a good opportunity as one doesn’t really need a telescope or anything for viewing the phenomenon. One just needs to get up one-and-a-half hour before sunrise and the five planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, will be visible in the western and middle sky. Usually, one gets to see only one or two planets at a time, but this is a rare event. As the planets go around the sun, at one point they can be seen all together in one alignment. I would advise students not to miss this opportunity and try joining the planets by an imaginary line. That’s when they can see the plane of the solar system.”
While the phenomenon has already begun, astronomy experts say that currently all planets other than Mercury are visible in the pre-dawn sky. Mercury joins the party in the first week of February.
But how does one identify the planets?
Arvind Paranjpye, director of the Nehru Planetarium in Mumbai, says it is quite simple to spot them and easier on certain dates. “About an hour before the local sunrise, Jupiter can be seen half-way between the point overhead called zenith and the western horizon. It will be the brightest object in that part of the sky. Right below Jupiter, one can see star Regulus (or Magha Nakshtra). In the eastern sky, you can see Mars, almost overhead. It is not quite a bright object, but it can be identified distinctly by its red colour. On February 1, nearly half-illuminated moon can be seen right above it. As far as Venus goes, it is the brightest object in the sky (other than the moon, of course). It can be seen right above the eastern horizon. Mercury is below and left of Venus. It will be the brightest object after Venus.”
Paranjpye says the best date to spot Saturn, which is half-way between Mars and Venus, would be on February 4, when the moon would be below and to the left of Saturn.
With the next best date likely to come in 2018, experts say only a few days are left to go before the alignment changes. “After February 10, Mercury will be too close to the sun and will not be seen any further,” said Dhurde.