All you need to know about the “parade of planets” in May: what we will actually see

Recently, the Internet was once again filled with reports about a “unique parade of planets that we will be able to observe”. In reality, of course, it’s just like that old joke: not unique, not a parade, and we won’t be able to see it. But what is behind these reports? Will something unusual happen in the sky at the end of May and the first days of June?

On 18 May, Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System, entered conjunction with the Sun, meaning that it was between Jupiter and the Earth for a while. After that, it “moved” from the evening sky to the morning sky. All the outer planets have consistently made this “move” since November. Venus has been visible in the morning since the end of August last year, and since 11 April 2024. Thus, all of the major planets are now located to the west of our sun (to the right when viewed from our latitudes). Saturn was and will be the “rightmost” in this row for a long time to come, with an angular distance of 70° between it and the Sun on the day of the Jovian conjunction.

Is this a lot or a little? On 20 April, all the major planets, together with the Sun, were visible within a sector of 66°, but the media did not make much noise about it at the time. Of course, this is less than 90° (right angle), which, according to the classical astronomical definition, means the onset of a “parade of planets”. But the same definition also says that this angle must be with the apex in the Sun, and we are observing from the Earth. It’s easy to see that when Jupiter is in conjunction with our luminary, i.e. on the other side of it, the directions towards it and our planet must be exactly opposite, and therefore the angle between them is 180°. Seems a bit much for a “parade”…

Some astronomers have coined the term “alignment” for such events, when several large planets “gather” in a relatively small area of the sky. It doesn’t quite capture the essence of the matter — after all, to “align”, celestial bodies need to get as close as possible to a straight line, which means we would have to see them very close to each other in the sky, and certainly not at a distance of 70°.

But the most ridiculous thing is the advice to observe this “alignment”, especially for people in Ukraine or more northern latitudes. On 18 May, when Jupiter was closest to the Sun from the point of view of ground-based observers, Venus was less than 5° away, meaning that these two objects are definitely “out of consideration”. On the same day, Uranus passed half a degree from Venus. This distant planet is very difficult to see with the naked eye even in the darkest sky, and in the solar halo it is guaranteed to be impossible, so we also “cross it out”. On 18 May, Mercury had an elongation of over 24°, which would not be so small… if we lived somewhere closer to the equator. At the latitude of Kyiv, it rose only 40 minutes before the Sun, in very light twilight, so it didn’t have a “ceremonial appearance” either. Over the next few days, it will only get closer to the sun and its visibility conditions will deteriorate.

Only three “participants” remain — Mars, Saturn and Neptune. The latter cannot be seen under any circumstances without the help of astronomical instruments. On 18 May, the angular distance between the first two was 25° and kept growing – too much for “alignment”, you see. As a result, instead of the advertised “parade”, we get two not very bright planets (the apparent brilliance of Mars and Saturn is now slightly below first magnitude), which can be found after 4 o’clock, in the morning twilight, low above the eastern part of the horizon. On the last morning of May, the Moon will help you do this, as it will be 4° from the Lord of the Rings. And on 4 June, Venus will briefly hide behind the solar disc, after which its evening visibility will begin, and the whole “parade” will be hopelessly disrupted.

You can read about the Moon’s convergence with other planets in the Solar System here.