Four bright planets cluster in predawn sky Wednesday
A crescent moon and Venus, right, are seen at dawn over the Kennedy Space Center on May 1.
May 10th, 2011
10:54 PM ET

Four bright planets cluster in predawn sky Wednesday

As if you needed another reason to get up before sunrise, four bright planets will cluster in the predawn sky Wednesday morning so close together they'll probably fit behind your outstretched hand (from where you stand, of course).

Throughout May, the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter will rearrange themselves on a daily basis to form different shapes in the eastern sky. The show ends with a grand finale on May 30, when a crescent moon joins the four planets.

Watch NASA illustration of the planets clustering

The best view will be about a half hour before sunrise on Wednesday, when Venus and Jupiter will be so bright "you might think you've witnessed a double supernova beaming through the morning twilight," scientist Tony Curtis said on NASA's Science News site.

The whole patch will be less than 10 degrees wide. Venus and Jupiter will be only a half degree apart, Curtis said.

TIME.com: Does the planets' alignment augur the end of the world?

"Keep an eye on Venus in particular. As the sun rises and the sky fills with morning blue, the Goddess of Love does not fade away. You can actually see Venus in broad daylight if you know where to look," he said.

Venus, the brighter of the two, will be to the right of Jupiter, the editors of StarDate magazine said last week. Mercury will be visible to the lower right of Venus, about the same distance from Venus to Jupiter. It won't be as bright but its proximity to Venus will help you find it. To the lower left of Jupiter, you'll find Mars, which may be too low and faint to see without the aid of binoculars.

Mercury, Venus and Jupiter will form a bright celestial triangle in May almost equilateral in appearance. On May 20, a new triangle will appear with Mars, Venus and Mercury forming the vertices.

Did you see them? Send us your images!

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Filed under: Mars • Mercury • Space
Four planets will cluster together next week
Jupiter (seen here) will hang low in the sky, along with Venus, Mars and Mercury, on Tuesday.
May 6th, 2011
07:24 PM ET

Four planets will cluster together next week

Four planets will huddle close together, visible to the naked eye, in the predawn sky next week, according to the editors of StarDate magazine.

"The best view is from the southern states because the path the planets follow across the sky (the ecliptic) stands at a little higher angle relative to the horizon," the magazine's editors said.

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Venus and Jupiter will be easy to spot hanging low in the east as dawn brightens on May 10. They are the brightest objects in the night sky after the Moon. Venus, the brighter of the two, will be to the right of Jupiter.

Mercury will be visible to the lower right of Venus, about the same distance from Venus to Jupiter. It won't be as bright but its proximity to Venus will help you find it. To the lower left of Jupiter you'll find Mars, which may be too low and faint to see without the aid of binoculars.

StarDate magazine is a bi-monthly publication of The University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory, which houses many telescopes responsible for a wide range of astronomical research. McDonald Observatory is also pioneering the next generation of astronomical research as a founding partner of the Giant Magellan Telescope.

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Filed under: Mercury • Space
Spacecraft enters Mercury orbit, NASA says
March 17th, 2011
11:01 PM ET

Spacecraft enters Mercury orbit, NASA says

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft on Thursday night became the first to achieve orbit around Mercury, the space agency announced.

Engineers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory confirmed MESSENGER achieved orbit at 9:10 p.m. ET, NASA said.

Aboard the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging spacecraft are seven science instruments, fortified against the intense heat and cold near the solar system's innermost planet. They will retrieve data on Mercury's geochemistry, geophysics, geologic history, atmosphere, magnetosphere and plasma environment, according to NASA.

According to National Geographic, temperatures on Mercury's surface can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit (430 Celsius). Because the planet has no atmosphere to retain that heat, nighttime temperatures can drop to minus 280 degrees (minus 170 degrees Celsius).

The instruments will be turned on and checked out beginning March 23 and, on April 4, the primary science phase of the mission will begin, NASA said in a statement.

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Filed under: Mercury • Solar System • Space