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Planets on a String

Week of December 8, 1997
There has been much ballyhoo the past week or so about a so-called "alignment" of the planets going on right now. Observatories and news stations are being flooded with questions about what's going on in the sky, and although the peak of this event was a few days ago, it is only slowly disappearing so it's a good candidate for a Snack.

Basically what is happening is that many planets are located in the same general area of the sky. Most obvious is Venus, high in the southwest sky after dark. Just to the right (west) of Venus is dim Mars, very red, but currently on the far side of the Sun so it is not very bright. Jupiter is the next most obvious, to the left (east) of Venus, but not quite as bright. Saturn is even farther to the left (east), glowing yellow and looking not much different than a medium-bright star. Mercury is a very difficult object located only a few degrees from the Sun after it sets; you need a very good location (no trees, flat horizon) to see it at all! The Moon is approaching full, and its position changes every day. It will soon move out of this grouping of planets. Uranus and Neptune are both between Jupiter and Venus, but are too faint to be seen without either binoculars or a telescope.

Note that this grouping is only a little looser than the "alignment" that will happen in May 2000. Nothing catastrophic will happen to the Earth then, so nothing will happen at all this time. Don't panic! But don't miss it, either. If it's clear at your location just after sunset, treat yourself to the show. It's very pretty!

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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