Sometimes in nature, everything comes together. Tomorrow morning the brilliantly bright planet Venus and giant planet Jupiter will appear close together, separated only by a gorgeous crescent moon. If you're lucky, you may also see Saturn lower down and closer to the horizon.
When to see Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and the moon
The celestial parade will be best seen from around 5:00 a.m. through 6:00 a.m. before sunrise on Thursday, Jan. 31. In New York, sunrise is at 7:06 a.m. EST while in Los Angeles it's at 6:49 a.m. PST, though the sky will have brightened significantly in the preceding hour of twilight. So get up early!
Since they are the three brightest objects in the sky aside from the Sun itself, Venus, Jupiter and the moon will be easy to see, but Saturn will be more difficult. Not only is it dimmer, but it won’t rise until 5:35 a.m. EST and 5:14 a.m. PST, so will be most easily seen after 6:00 a.m. in a brightening sky.
The moon is now in its waning gibbous phase, and on Jan. 31 will be 19% illuminated. It moves across the night sky gradually each night, easy visual evidence of its 29-day orbit. So even if you miss the sight of Venus and Jupiter being split by the crescent moon, if you get up at the same time on Friday, Feb. 1 you will see that the crescent moon has moved away to the lower left, with Venus and Jupiter to its upper right. That will still be a pretty sight to see.
How to see Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and the moon
This celestial line up will take place in the southeastern sky as seen from North America and Europe. You don't need anything specific to see this event, just clear skies and wide eyes, though a clear view of the southeastern sky will be helpful. Saturn will be close to the horizon, so easier to see from an elevated position.
Since the crescent moon will be very close to Venus (just 2°), you will be able to get both in the field of view of a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. A powerful telescope will reveal that Venus is half-lit, though point any pair of binoculars at Jupiter and you'll see at least a few of its four bright moons: Ganymede, Io, Callisto and Europa. If you've not seen them before, they are an incredible sight.
How close are Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and the moon?
The planets may look close, but it's purely a line of sight coincidence. If you look at The Planets Today live map of the solar system you can see that Venus is 128 million km from Earth while Jupiter is 879 million km and Saturn is 1.636 million km. It's all a beautiful illusion.
Why is Venus called the Morning Star?
Since Venus is an "inner planet" as seen from Earth, it appears to ping back and forward, mostly being lost in the Sun's glare. However, when it appears to be far from the Sun in either direction, it's visible for months at a time as either a super-bright "Morning Star" in the east before sunrise or an "Evening Star" in the west after sunset. Since it appears relatively low in the sky, it's easy to see, and therefore responsible for most so-called UFO sightings.
When will the Solar System line up again?
A crescent moon will next pass close to Venus on March 3, 2019, though by then Venus and Jupiter will be much further apart. Venus will become a bright "Evening Star" in summer, and on Nov. 24, 2019 will appear exceptionally close to Jupiter in the evening sky.
However, "the big one" is not until Sept. 8 in 2040, when Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars and the moon will all be visible in a line in what astronomers call a "super conjunction."