Science & Environment

Venus, Jupiter and Mars align for skyline display

Media captionPallab Ghosh reports as the rare sight of Mars, Jupiter and Venus grouping together will be seen this week

Venus, Jupiter and Mars can all be seen together in the sky this week, in a rare grouping of the three planets.

The planetary conjunction - in which planets "line up" due to the timing of their orbits around the Sun - has been visible for days and will continue until at least the end of the week.

The planets are best seen before sunrise and will form a particularly neat triangle on Thursday.

The next time the planets cluster this close together will be in January 2021.

But how do would-be astronomers see the spectacle before it is gone?


How do I see it?

Media captionPeter Gibbs forecasts when to spot the planets

The planets can be seen without equipment, towards the east. The best time to see them is just before sunrise because at this time they are high in the sky but it is dark enough to see them. Binoculars and telescopes can be used to see the planets in more detail.


Which planet is which?

The easiest planet to see is Venus, which is about 12 times brighter than Jupiter. Jupiter appears second brightest.

Mars is about 250 times less bright than Venus. To see Mars it may be necessary to get up an hour before sunrise.

Image copyright Allan Trow Dark Sky Wales
Image copyright Allan Trow Dark Sky Wales
Image caption To see Mars it may be necessary to get up an hour before sunrise
Image copyright Allan Trow Dark Sky Wales
Image copyright Andrew Hill
Image caption Most parts of the UK are expected to have at least one clear morning to see the planets

Where can I see them?

Wherever there are clear skies.

Where you are in the world does not affect how the planets appear.

Within the UK, said BBC weather presenter Alex Deakin, northern Scotland and the north-west and south-east of England would have the clearest weather at the beginning of the week, while Wales and south-west England would be best later in the week.

He added that all parts of the UK should have at least one clear morning this week.

Media captionThis animation illustrates how Jupiter, Venus and Mars (not to scale) can swing into close alignment, from Earth's point of view

How long will they visible?

The planets have been visible together from 23-24 October and will remain visible until at least the end of the week, according to Affelia Wibisono, astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

On Wednesday and Thursday, as Venus - because it is closer to Earth - passes Jupiter and "catches up" with Mars, the planets will form a flattened triangle, with Venus almost directly between the other two planets.


Is a grouping of this kind unusual?

Image copyright Clive Dennison
Image caption Two planets appear together at various times throughout the year but three is rarer
Image copyright Graeme Skinner
Image caption Each planet is tracing out its own orbit of the Sun

Two planets appear together in this way at various times throughout the year, but it is much rarer to have three grouped together.

The fact the planets can be seen without binoculars or a telescope is one of the things that makes this grouping special, Ms Wibisono said. By contrast, it would not be possible to see a grouping of Uranus, Neptune and Saturn without equipment, she said.


Why are the planets grouping together?

Each planet is tracing out its own orbit of the Sun, and each takes a different amount of time to do so. This week, they have reached a point where - as seen from Earth - they line up in our sky.


Are the planets actually closer to each other than usual?

No. In fact the planets remain millions of kilometres apart and the appearance of them being close together is a consequence of their relative positions in the Solar System. The Sun acts as a torch lighting them up, and from our vantage point on Earth it is difficult to see the "depth" of space that separates the planets.

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