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Sky watch: Planet-moon celestial dance

A marvelous dance is beginning right now -- a sort of "planetary polka," if you will. The "stars" are Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter, with a brief appearance by the moon.

May 1, look low to the eastern horizon to spot the most brilliant planet of all, Venus. Closer to the horizon that morning will lie the second-brightest planet, Jupiter.

Below and to the left of Venus lies Mercury, while next to Jupiter appears Mars.Mercury and Mars appear much fainter than their luminous co-stars Venus and Jupiter.

On that same morning, the thin crescent moon will hover near Venus. Aim a pair of wide-angle binoculars this way to see most, if not all, of these worlds in the same field of view.

The next morning you will not see the moon near Venus, but closer to Jupiter lower in the sky. By May 3, the moon will have exited stage right.

, with Mercury just below this trio. A few days later, on the morning of May 12, Jupiter and Venus will appear less than a degree apart, making them both visible in the same field of view of a small backyard telescope. Mercury will lie beneath this pair, and Mars will remain a few degrees to the east.

A pair of binoculars aimed at this quartet will now show all four bodies in the same field of view.This configuration doesn't last long, though -- by the next morning, the two brightest planets will have traded places, with Jupiter then appearing higher in the sky than Venus.

By the 16th, Jupiter, Venus and Mars once again appear equidistant from each other, with Mercury lying below brilliant Venus. And on the morning of the 23rd, Mercury, Mars and Venus will form a tight triangle -- again visible all together in binoculars -- and will create a celestial "arrow" that points upward toward Jupiter some 10 degrees away. Near the end of the month -- on the mornings of May 30 and 31 -- these planets will form a straight line in the eastern sky, and the moon will re-enter stage left to dance past them, a fitting and dramatic curtain call for this stunningly beautiful month-long planetary polka.

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