Rise up early in the middle of April and you will be able to see 4 planets in the early morning sky. From the 15th to the 17th, the moon will join the 3 superior plants, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in close proximity, while Mercury will be hanging below them low on the horizon. Something worth getting out of bed early to witness.
Jupiter, Saturn and Mars are currently lined up in a row in the April Sky
Each planet orbits the sun at different speeds. So sometimes several of them will be close together in the sky, as Jupiter, Saturn and Mars will be in April. In fact all the planets that are visible to the naked eye will be visible in April, with Mercury appearing as well in the morning sky, but separated from the other 3 planets, and Venus will be visible in the evening.
Superior vs inferior planets
You might be thinking we all know which planet is superior, and it is Uranus, because of that joke you thought was funny back in primary school. But in fact, a superior planet is any of the planets that are further away from the Sun than Earth. The 3 that are visible to the naked eye are Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The inferior planets are then Venus and Mercury who are between us and the Sun.
Image of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars courtesy of Paul Stewart @ Flickr
Just to confuse everyone, there is also the term, superior and inferior conjunction. This distinction really only applies to the inferior planets Mercury and Venus, who despite being inferior, can have a conjunction on the far side of the side and then, while the planet remains inferior, the conjunction is superior.
I don't recommend reading any significance into the conjuncture, even though we do live in dark times (that is a phrase I never thought I would write in a WeekendNotes article). Humans have watched the skies since before we had history. The Gabi Gabi people of the Sunshine Coast plan their migrations between coast and the mountains based on orientation in the sky of The Emu, or as we call it, the Milky Way. Meanwhile ancient egyptians could predict the annual flooding of the Nile River based on the position of the stars. Agricultural people's lives depending on knowing when to plant their crops based on watching the heavens.
But in the skies were wandering stars, that is, the 5 planets visible to the naked eye. While their movement was predictable, they were out of sync with the seasons. So the question always was, what do their movements portend. It turns out, pretty much nothing, but it is easy to understand why many cultures put significance in planetary conjunctions.
Viewing the planets
The planets are often the brightest stars in the sky, so they are easily viewed even from within the suburbs, though city centres may have too much light pollution to see them clearly. While they are visible at night, they often remain the only stars visible as the sky lightens before dawn, making them easy to spot. In fact, in the suburbs, planets often stand out clearly at night from the few other visible stars.
Over the month of April, the 3 planets, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars will rise a little bit after midnight and remain visible until the sky becomes too light to see them any more. So you can stay up late to see them or get up early in the morning.
The planets are of course visible to the naked eye, but even a modest telescope or powerful binoculars can give you a closer view. This is a great opportunity for your kids during the school holidays to do a bit of amateur astronomy from the back yard.
The moon and planets together
In the middle of April, the moon will join the 3 superior planets. The primary dates for this are the 15, 16, 17 of April, with the 16th being the when the moon is among the 3 planets in the sky and on the other days, the moon will be above and below the 3 planets, but still close to them.
I know many other articles and sources give the dates of the 14th, 15th and 16th, but in Australia, the planets don't rise until the morning. So you might stay up on the 14th, to watch the planets rise on the 15th. In other regions, the planets might rise earlier so that those dates are correct.
Viewing around Australia on the 16th
Below is the information for the rise of the 3 planets on the morning of April 16. The best viewing time is considered to be just before dawn when only the 3 planets and the moon will remain visible as the sky brightens. Of course, you can also use an app on your phone to track the location of the planets. I use Sky Map, which is one of many great apps for this. You just point your phone at the sky at its shows you what your phone is pointing at.
On the 16th, there will be a separation of about 10 degrees between the planets, which is why the directions given are not exact. However, they are very easy to spot, and on the 15th, 16th and 17th, just look for the moon, and you should see the planets as well.
On the morning of the 16 the in Brisbane, the 3 planets and the moon will be visible from 12:22 am and will best viewed early in the morning at 5:44 am. They will be at an altitude around 70 to 80 degrees in the north east.
In Sydney, you can catch all 3 planets and moon from 12:18 am with the best time to view them at 5:56 am. The altitude will be between 65 and 75 degrees in the north east.
Down in Melbourne, all 3 planets and the moon will have risen by 12:34 am with the best viewing time being at 6:24 am. At this time, the planets will be between 65 and 75 degrees in altitude in the North East.
The 3 planets and the moon will all be visible in the sky after 12:36 am in Adelaide. At 6:18 am, look to the north east around 70 degrees in altitude for the best view before sunrise.
People in Perth have to wait until 12:43 am for all 3 planets to rise above the horizon, with the best view being at 6:16 am at an altitude of between 68 to 78 degrees in the east north east.
Mercury will also be visible.
Mercury passed its point of greatest elongation last month and will now be very low the horizon in the early morning. If you don't have a clear view of the horizon, you may not be able to see it. But it is worth looking out for as well.
The planet Mercury will also be visible close to the horizon
You don't need any fancy equipment to photograph a planet, especially as the sky lightens. Even your phone will capture the bright stars clearly. If you have a camera with a good telephoto lens you will be able to capture the clear disc of the planet.
My main advice is to use a tripod to steady your camera. There is a lot of playing around with settings, depending on the brightness of the sky, the degree of magnification you use and so on.
The combination of 3 planets all in a row so close together is fairly rare, and to have the moon join them for a couple of days make this unique. Over the school holidays, it may be a great idea to get the kids up early to see the planets, or let them stay up late if you have a good view of the eastern horizon.