Planets to Waltz across Night-Sky Ballroom ; in a Rare Event, Five Planets Will Be Visibly Aligned over the Next Few Weeks - No Telescope Necessary

Article excerpt

From our seat here on Earth, the rhythms of the universe rarely seem like must-see viewing. Oh, there's the occasional comet or meteor shower. But, for the most part, the heavens appear to slip by much as they have since the beginning of time.

If you happen to miss one week of stargazing, not to worry. They'll be there for the rest of eternity.

For the next few weeks, however, the night sky is conspiring to offer a scene that only comes around once a lifetime or so: All five planets visible to the naked eye will be packed into a tiny swatch of western sky shortly after sunset.

Given the planets' different paths and speeds, a similar convergence hasn't been seen since 1940 - and won't be seen again until 2040.

Yet until early June, this ever-restless dance of planets will give earthbound viewers a unique look at the solar system's thin necklace of night lights - not to mention an education on their mysteries and movements.

"Just to see all these planets together will be spectacular," says David Aguilar of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

Tonight at dusk, and for most of the rest of the month, the planets will stretch in a long line.

Anchoring the string will be Mercury - which will be visible just above the horizon where the sun sets - then Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter will unfurl upward at a roughly 60-degree angle.

Even without binoculars, the character of the solar system begins to reveal itself in a view like this. At the bottom, Mercury seems little more than a space pebble, the smallest of the inner planets - and so close to the sun that it, too, sets not long after the sunset glow is gone.

Above it, white Venus - our closest neighbor - is the brightest object in the night sky (besides the moon). Farther upward, Mars sulks in deep red, and the great, outer gas giants of Saturn and Jupiter glow massive and pale higher in the sky.

Yet the nature of the planets themselves is but one part of the show. The other is their nightly waltz.

From early May until early June, the planets will be constantly shifting and reordering themselves in a half-dozen different combinations of both scientific and historic significance. …

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