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The Planetary Alignment

After Sunset, 9:45pm EDT, Saturday 13 July 2002

I suppose that this must be the last gasp of the Planetary Alignment of 2002, but coming home from a West Michigan Whitecaps baseball game on the north side of Grand Rapids, we were treated to a spectacular sight as we drove West towards home: A four-day-old Moon hung in the sky, a thick bright sliver on the lower right edge of the disk -- but there was a hint of the rest of the disk against the night sky, because Earthshine from the other side of the sunset line (technically called the terminator) lightly illuminated it. Just below and to the right was one bright light -- that was Venus. To have two bright lights with the dark blue of the sky just at sunset was just lovely.

Sometimes in the pursuit of scientific truths, we tend to forget to look up -- or in this case, just out. In the ancient night sky before we put up electric lights anywhere, the stars and planets and The Moon dominated. They could be reassuring -- coming back every year and every month according to the seasons. Or they could be frightening, as with the arrival of comets. And sometimes they were just beautiful.

This star chart was generated by EZCosmos 4.0, for Kalamazoo MI, 13 July 2002, 9:45pm EDT.

July 13th 9:45pm EDT - Kalamazoo MI


After Sunset, Monday 10 June 2002

The Planetary Alignment of 2002 has passed its peak now, I reckon, but you can still see several planets in a rough line.

In the new snapshot from EZCosmos 4.0, I made a few adjustments so you can see things a bit clearer. First of all, I'm showing BELOW the horizon, so you can see the Moon almost on top of the Sun below the horizon (see The Minor Solar Eclipse of Monday 10 June 2002). Saturn appears very close to the Sun and below it, so you will not be able to see Saturn any more in this series.

The real show is the ragged line of three planets draped across the constellation Gemini. All through the Spring, the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have been playing celestial tag just after sunset. Every month another Moon has played on through the arrangements. And with the advancing of the months and the lengthening of the days, it is now Gemini that is nearer the horizon just after sunset.

The two bright stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, are also known as "The Eyes of the Night", because they seem to stare right back at you -- the distance in the night sky between the two stars matches well with the spacing of a pair of human eyes, and the Ancients noted this. Castor and Pollux actually represent the two heads of The Twins.

Venus is just off the left arm of the left twin. Jupiter is lined up along the base of the spine of the left twin and Mars is seated in the lap of the right twin.

I am figuring that at least of the planets will be bright enough to see fairly early as the sunset progresses, and Castor and Pollux show up pretty early in the evening. In the next several nights after Monday 10 June, the Moon will pass along this line of planets. Of course, the New Moon occurs at the moment of the maximum Solar Eclipse, by definition. It would be virtually impossible to see the 24-hour old Moon on Tuesday 11 June, but there could/should be a very thin sliver of the Moon near Jupiter on Wednesday 12 June and by Thursday 13 June, the young Moon will be very close to Venus, creating a very pleasing image in the night sky -- provided the stupid West Michigan weather holds!

This star chart was generated by EZCosmos 4.0, for Kalamazoo MI, 10 June 2002, 9:45pm EDT.

Just After Sunset 6-10-2002 (Looking West)


Sunset, Friday 26 April 2002

My first good chance to look for planets after sunset came after a long day of grading.

Arriving home on a (mostly) clear evening, sunset was around 8:45pm EDT in the west. A full moon was just rising in the east -- really quite spectacular in itself (see The Big Full Moon). Unfortunately there was some whispy clouds near the western horizon, which probably obscured some view. There should have been five planets to see: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. I only made out four bright lights, so I was probably missing Mercury. It's not easy tp pick up. Too close to sunset and the horizon glow is too bright. Wait too long and it's too low in the sky, obscured by haze, trees, other junk... and eventually the whole stupid Earth gets in the way. Mostly I don't even think of trying to look for Mercury, so I think I've only ever seen it two or three times in my life. Anyway, I did score Venus and Mars, and way up there was Jupiter. But at the time I was looking, the other bright light was too far out of line, so it was probably one of the early bright stars. Didn't have my handy star chart for that night at the ready.

But looking for planets in the early night sky is cool. You're sure you can't see anything because the sky is too bright. But then... WHAM. There's one! See, you can't really focus on bare sky, so when this tiny but bright pinprick of light suddenly registers, you may see two of them and have to work to get your eyes together to see one point. In fact, in a classic optical illusion, it almost seems as the planet (or star) is in front of the sky. And once you've seen the planet, it's easy to pick it up again when you get back to that patch of sky.

So Here's the Deal -- Starting After Sunset, Friday 19 April 2002 and later...

As the planets move around the Sun, they move around in our sky. Of course, we can only see them when it's dark outside. Sometimes the planets appear to line up in the sky. In ancient times, superstitious people put great significance on such events, but they are really just quirks of celestial mechanics. Still, when Nature puts on a sky show for us, we should take advantage of it - besides, it's free!

These patterns repeat fairly frequently in the great scheme of things, but they don't always show at times of day/year when we might see the show.

Assuming we have clear weather at sunset (not always a good bet for Michigan!)...

Look west towards where the Sun just set (say 8:30pm EDT).

Just to the left and up, you may see:

  1. A dim point of light that is Mercury. (Mercury is hard to see because not only is it small, but it is also close to the Sun!)
  2. Continuing up and slightly left, we have Venus (The Evening Star)...
  3. Mars...
  4. Saturn...
  5. a larger gap, then Jupiter...
  6. ... and finally a thin cresent Moon.

This star chart was generated by EZCosmos 4.0, for Kalamazoo MI, 19 April 2002, 8:30pm EDT.

Just After Sunset 4-19-2002 (Looking West)

Sunset, Monday 6 May 2002 and later...

By the 6th of May, the start of the Spring 2002 Session at Western Michigan University,

Look west towards where the Sun just set (say 8:30pm EDT).

Just to the left and up, you may see:

  1. A dim point of light that is Mercury. (Mercury is hard to see because not only is it small, but it is also close to the Sun!)
  2. Continuing up and slightly left, we have a tight triangle of...
  3. Venus (The Evening Star)...
  4. Mars...
  5. Saturn...
  6. then a larger gap, then Jupiter...
  7. The waning Moon will not rise until much later.

This star chart was generated by EZCosmos 4.0, for Kalamazoo MI, 6 May 2002, 8:45pm EDT.

Just After Sunset 5-6-2002 (Looking West)