by Sky & Telescope
Washington - April 3, 2000 - An eye-catching group of three planets shines in the western sky at dusk during the first half of April. Anyone with an open view toward the west can watch Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn work through a slow dance of changing configurations from one evening to the next.
The brightest of the three is Jupiter, shining with a steady light. Look low in the west about an hour after sunset; you can't miss it.
To Jupiter's upper left is Saturn, less bright. Tiny Mars is quite a bit fainter. You may have to wait until twilight grows fairly dark before Mars comes into view with its unmistakable orange tinge.
For the first four days of April, Mars glimmers just to Jupiter's lower right (as seen from North America). Mars and Jupiter appear closest -- separated by less than a finger's width seen at arm's length -- on April 5th and 6th, with Mars appearing to Jupiter's right. On the 6th the crescent Moon shines close to the planets to create an especially lovely twilight sky scene.
The Moon will be shining farther to the planets' upper left by the evening of Astronomy Day, April 8th, when many amateur-astronomy clubs will set up telescopes to show off the sky to the public. By then Mars will have crept above Jupiter. The red planet passes close by Saturn a week later, on April 15th.
After that, all three planets will become harder to see as they descend lower into the west. They are on their way to an even bigger gathering of planets in early May, when Mercury and Venus will join them in the same general area of the sky. Unfortunately this grand grouping will be hidden from view in the glare of the Sun.
The planet alignment in early May has prompted some people (as well as dealers in survivalist gear with unsold inventory left over from the Y2K scare) to predict that on May 5th tidal waves will wash away coastal cities, California will fall into the Pacific, earthquakes of unheard-of intensity will shake the Earth's crust like a carpet, and/or the Earth's poles will turn topsy-turvy.
Here's a hot news tip from SKY & TELESCOPE: it won't happen!
In 1997 SKY & TELESCOPE published an article about this planetary alignment, how all the fuss began, and how this grouping compares with others. Written by Jean Meeus, the Belgian astronomer who first noticed the alignment nearly 40 years ago.
To the question "How rarely does such an alignment happen?" there is no very meaningful answer. Like snowflakes, no two planet groupings are exactly alike. So this one has never happened before and never will again. But like snowflakes in a snowstorm, planet alignments of one sort or another come and go pretty much all the time.
If the question is posed as "When did most of the planets, plus the Moon and Sun, last gather in the same general area of the sky?", the answer is in December 1997 and again in January 1998. So, contrary to some claims, this is not an especially rare type of event.
For some fascinating stories of how planet conjunctions (pairings and groupings) really have changed history -- through superstition on the part of people from Genghis Kahn to Rudolf Hess -- see Bradley Schaefer's cover story in the May 2000 issue of SKY & TELESCOPE. In the same issue you'll also find an explanation by Donald Olson and Thomas Lytle of why tidal forces from the planets will not wreak havoc on May 5th.
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