The graphic below illustrates the five planets as they are visible, with the naked eye, from Huntsville, Alabama. It shows their positions in the sky around 6:30 AM during the week of January 18 and continuing for the next few days. Mercury will be close to the Sun, over in the East, and Jupiter will be over in the West, with Venus, Saturn, and Mars between the two. Pluto is near Mercury, but is invisible to the eye, requiring a telescope for viewing.
The last time an alignment such as this occurred was about 10 years ago. This pre-sunrise configuration will be similar for other northern latitudes.
In the graphic, the yellow line is the ecliptic, which is the plane of the Earth’s orbit. The orbits of the major planets lie close to this plane, which is why they appear close to the ecliptic in the night sky.
NASA’s Mercury MESSENGER spacecraft is preparing to insert itself into orbit tonight, Mar. 17. While you may not have a seat, you can still see Mercury tonight after sunset from the comfort of planet Earth.
Close-up image of a portion of Mercury’s surface, captured on a MESSENGER fly-by on Oct. 6, 2008. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/ Carnegie Institution of Washington)
The key to seeing Mercury is having an unobstructed view of the horizon in the sunrise or sunset direction. You should look for Mercury about 30 to 40 minutes after sunset, as soon as the sky begins to darken.