Calling all the early birds and (very late) night owls! If you want to see four of the five planets visible to the naked eye in a nice little row, this is the week for you. Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and Saturn are all aligned in the pre-dawn eastern sky, and you can easily spot them.
The planets, all visible without the aid of binoculars or telescopes, will be visible about an hour before dawn – blame time zones for lack of one-size-fits-all timing prediction – with Saturn to be the first to rise from the horizon, followed by Mars. The morning star – the traditional misnomer of Venus – is next, followed by the King of the planets, Jupiter. Technically Neptune is in the line-up as well but unless you have a very good telescope you won't be able to see this blueish icy world.
The alignment is going to be visible for several weeks so don’t worry you may miss the boat on this, but if you want to wake up for a particularly good viewing, then there’s a specific date to keep in mind. On May 1, Jupiter and Venus will be in conjunction, meaning they’ll appear just a fraction of a degree from each other. In fact, you'll need binoculars if you want to separate them. The two objects are the brightest planets, reflecting the light of the Sun, so seeing them together will be quite something.
If you miss this conjunction, you’ll have to wait about three years and three months for the next morning conjunction expected on August 12, 2025, but luckily the two planets also meet in the evening. Their conjunction just after sunset will take place on March 1, 2023.
But, I hear you cry, enough about the easily spotted planets, what about Mercury? Where is it while the four larger worlds galavant together across the pre-dawn sky? Well, worry not because Mercury will become visible as well and it will be in an exciting position. On May 1, right after sunset, Mercury can be spotted following the Sun beyond the horizon, next to the Pleiades, probably the most famous star cluster known to humanity.
If May 1 is no good, May 2 and 3 will also work. On May 2 in particular, you can use the waxing crescent of the Moon as an easy way to spot Mercury given how close these two celestial bodies will appear in the sky.
And talking about the Moon, May will also see a total lunar eclipse, where our natural satellite will turn its peculiar blood-red color as it passes through the shadow cast by our planet. Due to the light filtered and refracted by Earth’s atmosphere, the shadow is not stark black but tinted an eerie red, a treat for astrophotographers the world over.
And don't forget, this week sees the peak of the Lyrids meteor shower on April 22, though it continues on until April 29.