If you are out in the hour or so just before sunrise this weekend, and have reasonably clear skies, turn your gaze to the southeast. There, four bright points of light will be arrayed along the horizon. However, those aren't stars. They're actually the planets Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and Saturn!
Four planets align along the southeastern horizon, at around 5 a.m. local time on April 30. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland
All season long, skywatchers that have been out in the wee hours of the morning have been watching a slow celestial dance along the eastern horizon. Mars, Venus, and Saturn had formed up into a triangle to start Spring off. Then, in early April, Jupiter emerged from the glare of dawn to join them.
Two views of the predawn sky, from March 25 and April 5, show the arrangements of the brightest planets in early Spring. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland
As the month progressed, Earth's position relative to these planets changed. Mars, Venus, and Saturn spread out from one another in our sky, eventually falling into alignment with Jupiter.
Over the past few days, though, this has gotten exciting!
Morning by morning, the two brightest of the batch, Jupiter and Venus, have been drawing closer and closer.
On Saturday, April 30, in the hour or so just before sunrise, these two planets will appear so close together as to nearly touch. Astronomers call this phenomenon a conjunction.
While Mars and Saturn 'hover' nearby, Jupiter and Venus appear to nearly touch, in a close conjunction, at 5:30 a.m. local time, on April 30, 2022. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland
These planets aren't actually that close, in space, of course. They only appear that way from our perspective here, on the surface of our planet. If you looked at our solar system from far above, you'd see them millions of kilometres away from one another.
This lineup of planets is bright enough that they should be visible even from the most light-polluted regions.
While Venus and Jupiter should be readily visible, it may take a few moments to spot dimmer Mars and Saturn. To find them quickly, hold up a hand at arm's length, fingertips pointed towards the sky, and position it to the right of Jupiter and Venus. Just to the right of your hand, you should see a reddish point of light. That will be Mars. From there, Saturn can be found a little over a hand's-width farther to the right of Mars.
The key factor for seeing the conjunction will be the weather. According to the forecast, Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta are the places with the best view of this celestial alignment on April 30.
If you miss it, don't despair! Although Jupiter and Venus will have switched positions, they will still be nearly as close together on Sunday morning. So, check back then!
Also these planets won't just vanish from our sky after the weekend is over. We can still see this celestial lineup in the predawn sky throughout the rest of the season.
Jupiter and Mars appear less than one degree apart from one another in the predawn sky on Sunday, May 29, 2022. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland
Plus, as an added bonus, on the morning of May 29, there will be another close conjunction of Jupiter — this time, with Mars.