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For First Time Since 2005 A 'Planetary Parade' Graces The Morning Sky

January 20, 2016

If you’re up before sunrise over the next few weeks, you may want to look toward the southeastern horizon. Starting Wednesday morning, five planets will be visible simultaneously with the naked eye.

Mercury will be the first planet visible just before dawn, popping into visibility for a brief moment of time on the edge of the horizon. The closest planet to the sun is rarely visible from Earth without some sort of telescope, but Wednesday morning for about an hour or so it will join Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in the early morning sky.

All five planets will be visible with the naked eye for the first time since January 2005.

“It’s not uncommon to get a lot of planets in view of the night’s sky, but it’s really spectacular when every (planet) is all on one side,” said Jim Todd, director of space science education at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. “It’s just a really spectacular view.”

For Oregonians blessed with clear skies — a rare thing this time of the year in the Pacific Northwest — the planets are expected to be visible each morning from Wednesday until about Feb. 20.

“Mercury is going to come up around 6:45 a.m. on (Wednesday, Jan.) 20th and you have about one hour, more or less, before the sunrise comes in or the twilight starts to overwhelm the viewing,” Todd said.

Todd said the key to observing this so-called "planetary parade" is to make sure you have a clear view of the southeastern horizon. Obstructions like buildings or trees could make it difficult to see Mercury because it will appear close to the horizon.

If your view is clear and clouds aren't in the way, you should be able to see Mercury in the southeastern corner of the sky, with Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter branching off in a diagonal line toward the southwestern horizon.

And how will you know you’re seeing planets and not stars?

“Stars twinkle. Planets do not,” Todd said.

But before you make plans to wake the children up early for sky gazing, you may want to check the forecast.

According to Amanda Bowen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Portland, only the southeastern most corner of Oregon is expected to have a clear enough sky to see anything Wednesday morning.

"Wednesday morning is going to be fairly cloudy across the area, though we might (get) some breaks in the clouds, but it’s probably not going to be good for viewing much of anything that you’d want to see in the sky," Bowen said.

Don't be discouraged, however. There's no need to rush out on the first morning to get a glimpse of this celestial event.

"It’s going to be visible for a good many mornings for awhile," Todd said.

In this photo, taken in 2008, two planets are visible in the early morning sky. For the first time since 2005, five planets are expected to be visible in the morning sky starting Wednesday.