The end of 2022 gives astronomers the chance to see all the planets, plus the Moon, in the evening sky at once. The last time this was possible from the UK was in October 1997 and it won’t be seen again until February 2025. The line-up will only be visible from the whole of the UK for a short time after sunset each evening and will require a clear view of the sky towards the south-west in particular. Uranus and Neptune are in the sky but will only be spotted after twilight.
Although the bright planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are easily visible in the early evening sky, Venus and Mercury are only to be seen just after sunset in the south-western sky. Venus is bright and easily visible with the naked eye, although only for a short time, while Mercury is fainter and may not be easy to see without binoculars. Uranus and Neptune will also require binoculars or a telescope to view them, and you might need to wait until the sky darkens to view them at all.
When to look
You can see Mars and Jupiter throughout the evening, as they are the brightest starlike objects in the evening sky. Mars is over to the east and has a noticeably orange tinge, although its description as the ‘Red Planet’ rather overstates its colour! Jupiter is in the western part of the sky and is creamy white. Saturn is rather fainter, and is to the west of Jupiter. It gets quite low in the sky after 7 pm.
But the planets that are only visible for a short time are Venus and Mercury. Venus is bright but very low in the south-western sky and you’ll need to look about 30 minutes after sunset to find it in the lingering glow after the Sun has actually set. The earliest it might be visible is about 20 December. It rises slightly higher day by day and in a few weeks will be easy to spot in the twilight, becoming a brilliant evening star during spring 2023. Mercury is in the same part of the sky, and is at its greatest distance from the Sun on 21 December. It’s much fainter than Venus but will be higher and to the left until 28 December when the two are very close together.
On Christmas Day the crescent Moon is some distance to the left of Mercury and Venus, and will act as a guide to finding them. Look to its right and lower down. The dwarf planet Pluto is also in the same direction, but it’s far too faint to be seen in the twilight sky, even with a big telescope!
Viewing tip: If you have a sky viewing app on your phone, such as Stellarium which we used to produce the illustration above, use this to show the sky in real time. This will help you find the location of the planets even when the sky is too bright to view them. But under no circumstances try viewing Mercury and Venus while the Sun is still in the sky. An inadvertent glimpse of the Sun could blind you instantly.
To find Uranus, follow our guide here, which requires binoculars. Neptune is more tricky, and requires mounted binoculars or a telescope, as explained here. The sky should be darker than it is at twilight.
How rare is this?
Each planet orbits the Sun at a different speed, with the outer planets, particularly Uranus and Neptune, moving slowest. So the line-up of all the planets is possible only when Uranus and Neptune are fairly close in the sky as they are at present. Towards the end of the 21st century these two planets are on opposite sides of the sky so they will never be visible simultaneously. Currently, Jupiter and Saturn are also fairly close in the sky, but over the next few years they will draw apart, making the event more unlikely. So while the line-up occurs in either the morning or evening sky every few years at the moment, it won’t be possible at all after 2025.