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Astro Bob: Wait a minute now — EIGHT planets in a row?

There are more than five planets at dawn. Hidden in the lineup are Uranus, Neptune and the asteroid Vesta. Oh, and Earth, too.

Planets by size
This diagram, which shows the planets' telescopic appearance and their correct relative sizes (except the moon), reveals that Uranus, Neptune and the asteroid Vesta also participate in the Grand Lineup. The date shown is June 24 at dawn.
Contributed / Stellarium with additions by Bob King
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Did you know that there are three more solar system members hiding in dawn's bright planet lineup? Uranus, Neptune and Vesta, the brightest asteroid, are also part of that graceful arc. You'll need only a little optical aid to spot them. Normally, a pair of steadily held 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars would show all three, but dawn light will be a limiting factor.

Vesta Neptune Uranus
Vesta, left, the brightest major asteroid and fourth discovered, along with Neptune, center, and Uranus "hide" in the line of planets. You'll need binoculars or a small telescope to see them.
Contributed / NASA, JPL-Caltech

Vesta will shine at magnitude 6.7 (easy in binoculars) and Neptune at 7.9 (more challenging but doable). Both are located between Jupiter and Saturn. To make sure you see them try getting out there a little earlier, about two hours before sunrise when the sky is still dark. If you wait until dawn is underway a small telescope will be necessary.

Neptune Vesta locator
This map gives you a better idea of where Vesta and Neptune are located. Use it in conjunction with the more detailed map, below, to find them in binoculars or a telescope.
Contributed / Stellarium with additions by the author

Uranus is a special case. It's located between Mars and Venus and fairly bright at magnitude 5.8 but too low above the horizon before dawn for a good view. I suggest you wait until about an hour and a half before sunrise, when the planet climbs to around 10 degrees. Twilight will still be weak at that time, which makes me fairly confident you'll see the remote planet in binoculars. If not, then a small telescope will nab it and the others.

Uranus wide locator
Uranus lies about 6 degrees east, left, of the waning moon not far from Venus on the morning of June 24. Dawn is just getting underway in this simulation.
Contributed / Stellarium

The five bright planets have special appeal not only because they're easy to see but grouped in order of increasing distance from the sun. Mercury, the innermost planet, shines low in the east, followed by Venus, the moon (a proxy for Earth), Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Like cosmic tiki lamps, they festoon the sky from from northeast to south.

Vesta detail map
This more detailed map will help you find and keep track of Vesta now through July 5. Stars are shown to magnitude 7.5, a little fainter than the asteroid.
Contributed / Stellarium with additions by Bob King

Uranus, Neptune and Vesta are clearly out of order in terms of distance, but hey, you can't have everything. Besides, how often can you see all eight planets — and a representative from the main asteroid belt — in one swipe? I plan to get to my viewing location early to spot Vesta, Neptune, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in a darker sky then wait to watch the others rise. I have a pair of 10x50 binoculars ready to go and a small refracting telescope as backup.

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Neptune detail map
Neptune will be nearly stationary in the sky now through July 5, so it won't get away from you! It shines close to a star a little brighter than the planet itself. Stars are plotted to magnitude 8.5, and Jupiter's position is shown for June 20.
Contributed / Stellarium with additions by Bob King

Again, the most important thing is finding the right location. You'll need a wide-open view to the east as close to the horizon as possible to see Venus and Mercury. Venus is plenty bright, but Mercury will be immersed in the twilight glow. In some locations haze could also be an issue. All the other naked-eye planets are higher up and more forgiving. If you miss a morning, no worries. The planets will be out to enjoy into early July.

Uranus detail map
Uranus shines from Aries the Ram just above the head of Cetus at magnitude 5.8. It moves slowly and will be easy to keep track of. Stars plotted to magnitude 6.5.
Contributed / Stellarium with additions by Bob King

Take this opportunity to get acquainted with interplanetary neighborhood. The lineup beautifully illustrates just how flat the solar system really is. If it weren't, the planets would be strung out willy-nilly in the sky. But no. They're neatly arranged in a line because the Earth also lies in the same flat plane.

Solar system
The planets and many asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter orbit the sun in approximately the same flat plane. The dawn planet lineup illustrates this in dramatic fashion.
Contributed / NASA

The solar system is like a huge, thin-crust pizza. As we look outward across its flat expanse both ahead and behind us, the planets appear to cycle around the sky on a single, narrow "highway" called the ecliptic, which defines the plane of the solar system. For now and for joy, they've even lined up in correct order, something we won't see again until March 2041.

Read more from Astro Bob
A pair of solar blasts are expected to punch up bright auroras across the much of the upper U.S. and Canada Wednesday night.

"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune.

Related Topics: SCIENCE AND NATURE
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at nightsky55@gmail.com.
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