What Is Planetary Alignment and When Will It Next Occur?
Planetary alignments are beautiful celestial events that you can observe without special equipment. Here you’ll learn the difference between a planetary alignment and a planetary parade and find the dates of the next spectacular planetary alignments in the sky.
Planetary alignment is an astronomical term used to describe the event when several planets gather closely on one side of the Sun at the same time.
Planetary parade is a colloquial term that means, in the broadest sense, that several planets are present in the sky in one night.
Now let’s find out when the planets will align next time.
When is the next planetary alignment?
On March 2, four planets — Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Uranus — will align in the sky. Start your observations as soon as it gets dark. Near the horizon, you’ll see two bright star-like objects — these are Venus (magnitude -3.9) and Jupiter (magnitude -2.1). The planets will be located in the constellation Pisces, half a degree apart. Mars, with a magnitude of 0.5, will be shining red in the constellation Taurus. Using a pair of binoculars, you’ll spot Uranus (magnitude 5.8) in the constellation Aries.
Although March 2 is the best day for observation, the alignment will be visible several days before and after that date. Now we’ll guide you on identifying the planets in the sky with the help of the astronomy app Sky Tonight.
Identify the aligned planets with Sky Tonight
You can check if you see a planet or a star with Sky Tonight:
Step 1: Open Sky Tonight and point your device at the sky or tap the big blue button. The app will display a live representation of the sky above you and track your movements.
Step 2: Direct your device toward the part of the sky where the object you wish to identify is located. You can lower the magnitude so that only naked-eye objects are left on the screen. To do this, tap the bottom panel and drag the top slider toward the eye icon.
Step 3: Tap on the object to see its name on the screen, then you can tap the name to learn more about it.
This will help you identify the aligned planets easily. To plan your observations, check out the 2023 planetary alignments listed below in this article. But first, let’s dive into the theory if you’re wondering what it actually means when planets align.
What is a planetary alignment?
Here are two common definitions of a planetary alignment:
- An astronomical event when planets gather closely on one side of the Sun at the same time, as seen from above the Solar System.
Some people think the Solar System planets can form a straight line as viewed from the Sun. However, the planets cannot achieve full alignment in three dimensions. Even a looser grouping in one quadrant (a 90-degree sector) is extremely rare: all planets gather in one quadrant only 7 times in the current millennium.
- A visual phenomenon when the planets appear close together in a small sky sector, as seen from the Earth.
When the Earth is one of the planets gathered on one side of the Sun, it appears to the observer that several planets are aligned in the sky. The smaller the sector in which the planets are seen, the more spectacular the alignment.
Don’t forget that alignments from the first definition aren’t always as striking as seen from the Earth. Even when all the planets gather within one quadrant in space, they may be scattered across the sky’s dome. Moreover, when the inner planets are close to the Earth-Sun line, we won’t see them in the night sky.
Do the planets form a line in the sky during the planetary alignment?
The planets do form a line, but it’s not perfectly straight. All the planets orbit the Sun in almost the same plane. As a result, when viewing from Earth, the other planets appear to move along the ecliptic, the Sun’s yearly path across the sky. You can check it yourself with the stargazing app Sky Tonight:
- Launch the app and find the yellow dotted line that contains the Sun and goes through the entire celestial sphere — this is the ecliptic.
- Move along this line, and you’ll eventually find all the planets on the sides of it. Or you can type the name of the desired planet in the search field and tap the target button near its name. The app will show the planet’s current location, and it will be near the ecliptic at any date and at any time.
As you move along the ecliptic in the app, you may notice that it is an arc from horizon to horizon. However, in a small part of the sky, the ecliptic looks like a straight line. You can see this by looking at the segment of the ecliptic that fits on your screen. That’s why when the planets come closer together in one sky sector during an alignment, it looks like they’re forming an almost straight line in the sky.
Is a planet alignment and a planet parade the same thing?
“Planetary parade” is not an official astronomical term, so it is used more loosely than the term “planetary alignment.” Planetary alignments are colloquially called planetary parades. Additionally, when multiple planets are visible together in one night, it can also be called a planetary parade. In astrology, a planetary parade occurs when several planets are located in the same zodiac constellation.
Types of planetary alignments
The following types of planetary alignments are distinguished according to the number of participating planets:
- Mini planetary alignment — 3 planets.
- Small planetary alignment — 4 planets.
- Large planetary alignment — 5 or 6 planets.
- Great (full) planetary alignment — all Solar System planets (+ Pluto sometimes).
When two planets are close in the sky, what is it called?
When two planets meet in the sky, it’s not a planetary alignment yet. It may be the closest approach or conjunction. In our dedicated article, you’ll find details about the upcoming planetary conjunctions.
The upcoming planetary alignments
Plan your planetary observations for all of 2023 and beyond! And don’t miss the next planetary alignment — described in detail at the beginning of the article.
When will the planets align in 2023?
Check out the planetary alignments visible from Earth in the nearest months.
- March 2: a small alignment of Venus, Jupiter, Uranus, and Mars within a 34-degree sky sector.
- March 28: a small evening alignment of Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, and Mars within a 48-degree sky sector.
- April 11: a small evening alignment of Mercury, Uranus, Venus, and Mars within a 33-degree sky sector.
- April 24: a small evening alignment of Mercury, Uranus, Venus, and Mars within a 38-degree sky sector.
- May 29: a small morning alignment of Uranus, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn within a 70-degree sky sector.
- June 17: a large morning alignment of Mercury, Uranus, Jupiter, Neptune, and Saturn within a 93-degree sky sector.
- July 26: a mini evening alignment of Mercury, Venus, and Mars within an 11-degree sky sector.
- August 24: at sunset, a mini alignment of setting Mercury and Mars and rising Saturn within a 174-degree sky sector; later at night, a small alignment of Uranus, Jupiter, Neptune, and Saturn within a 78-degree sky sector.
The most anticipated planetary alignments
Here are some planetary alignments discussed in the media. They are noteworthy because they feature many planets that are grouped closely together. However, most of them won’t happen anytime soon, so don’t hold your breath.
On September 8, 2040, five naked-eye planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) will be within a circle of 9 degrees in the sky. The crescent Moon will also be visible, positioned between Venus and Saturn. The best time for observations will be around 19:30 local time.
On March 15, 2080, six planets — Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and Uranus — will be visible in the morning sky, all within an 82-degree sector. This alignment is especially remarkable because it will feature the “great conjunction” of Saturn and Jupiter, which will be only six arcminutes apart.
On May 19, 2161, all Solar System planets, including the Earth, will gather on one side of the Sun, within 69 degrees of each other. However, the planets will appear to be spread across 171 degrees in the Earth’s sky, observable just before dawn.
On November 7, 2176, all Solar System planets, including the Earth, will gather on one side of the Sun, within 78 degrees of each other. From the Earth’s vantage point, the planets will be spread across the sky, within 162 degrees of each other.
On May 6, 2492, all Solar System planets, including the Earth, will gather on one side of the Sun, within 90 degrees of each other. In the Earth’s sky, the planets will be aligned within 162 degrees of each other.
When is the next planet parade?
The next planet parade is on March 2, 2023, when four planets — Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Uranus — will align in the sky. Learn what other sky objects to see in March in our dedicated article.
When was the last time the planets aligned?
The last time five planets — Venus, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus, and Mars — aligned in the sky was on February 23, 2023. The planets were gathered in the sky sector of 108 degrees.
How to see a planetary alignment?
Planetary alignments are quite easy to observe, with just a few essential tips to keep in mind:
- The alignments featuring Mercury can be viewed just after sunset or before dawn, depending on the date.
- Use a pair of binoculars when trying to spot Uranus and Neptune.
- For the inner planets, the best viewing conditions occur near their greatest elongations, and for the outer planets — around their oppositions.
Use the app Sky Tonight to find all the planets in the sky above you and learn their visibility conditions.
When will all the planets align?
The Solar System planets never form a perfectly straight line in space, as they do not orbit in the same plane. But sometimes, the planets gather closely on one side of the Sun. At the next full alignment on May 19, 2161, the eight planets will be located within 69 degrees from each other.
What happens when the planets align?
Some media sources falsely claim that planetary alignments cause tsunamis, earthquakes, and other global disasters. This nonsense has been repeatedly debunked. In reality, alignments do not affect gravity or human life, but they are cool stargazing events.
Planetary alignment is a term used in astronomy to describe the event when several planets gather in a small sky area. This event may also be colloquially called a “planetary parade.” The next alignment of 4 planets is on March 2. The planets will be visible as soon as darkness falls. Download a free stargazing app Sky Tonight to help you spot them all!
Text Credit: Vito Technology, Inc.