Skywatchers to get special treat — five planets and a comet

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A photographer prepares to take pictures of the annual Perseid meteor shower in the village of Crissolo, near Cuneo, in the Monviso Alps region of northern Italy, on August 13, 2015. The Perseid meteor shower occurs every year when the Earth passes through the cloud of debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle. AFP PHOTO / MARCO BERTORELLO (Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)

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DENVER -- If you don't mind getting up a bit early -- or sneaking out of the office if you work the overnight shift -- the skies are offering a very special treat for the next few weeks.

From Wednesday to Feb. 20, you can see five planets spanning the sky together just before dawn: Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter will all be visible about 45 minutes before sunrise.

This is the first time all five of the so-called naked-eye planets have appeared together in the pre-dawn sky in more than a decade, according to Sky and Telescope.

The group got the name "naked-eye planets" because you can see each of them with your own eyes; you don't need binoculars or a telescope.

From Wednesday 20 to Feb. 20, you can see five planets spanning the sky together just before dawn: Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter will all be visible about 45 minutes before sunrise.
From Wednesday 20 to Feb. 20, you can see five planets spanning the sky together just before dawn: Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter will all be visible about 45 minutes before sunrise.

But that doesn't mean they're all easy to find. If you don't do a lot of skywatching, it can be confusing to pick the planets out of a sky filled with stars. Here are some tips to make it easier:

First, figure out when sunrise is for your area. The U.S. Naval Observatory has an easy tool.

Also, to help you get your bearings and to make it easier to find the planets, download an astronomy app and get used to using it inside the house before you head out into the cold.

You can also use the charts in many of the popular astronomy websites: Astronomy.comEarthsky.org and Sky & Telescope.

Or you can contact your local planetarium to see if a special show is planned.

Bundle up. You'll probably need to be outside 15 to 20 minutes to find the planets and enjoy the sky.

Start with Venus. Besides the moon, it's the brightest thing in the night sky and it's the easiest planet to find. Look to the southeast just above the horizon.

Next, look for Jupiter. It's second brightest but it's far away from Venus in the southwestern sky. If you have good image-stabilizing binoculars, you may even see some of Jupiter's moons.

Once you're confident you've spotted Venus and Jupiter, the other planets get easier to pick out.

Mars will be the reddish dot about halfway between Venus and Jupiter. It's not nearly as bright as Venus and Jupiter, but it's still easy to see.

After you find Mars, you can hunt for Saturn. It's between Mars and Venus.

Now for the troublemaker -- Mercury. Because it's closest to the sun, it often gets lost in the glare of sunrise or sunset.

But you might be able to spot it by Friday -- if you don't have a lot of buildings, trees or mountains blocking your view. Mercury will look like a small bright dot between Venus and the horizon.

If five planets aren't enough for you, a comet is making its closest swing by Earth this week. Comet Catalina doesn't pose any threat -- it will safely pass about 67 million miles away, according to NASA. But that's close enough to spot it with binoculars or a telescope in the pre-dawn sky.

Earthsky.org has some good tips for finding the comet. Looking at it through binoculars, the comet looks like a small, fuzzy smudge in the sky but it's worth the trouble for comet lovers.

Interested in the comet? Don't wait around. This is the first time Comet Catalina has been in our part of the solar system. But it's going so fast that scientists expect it to zip by Earth, escape our solar system and never return.

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