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‘Unusual' show about to unfold when five planets appear in the same night sky

May 12, 2002|By DARREN SIMON

Staff Writer

The distance from our little blue planet, the third from the sun, to other worlds in our galaxy's celestial mix measures in millions of miles.

Venus is 26 million miles from Earth, Mars, 48 million, Mercury, 57 million, Jupiter, 390 million and Saturn about 700 million.

This month those five planets may at least seem a bit closer as each, in a rare showing, has become visible to the naked eye in the same night sky.


Since early May the five planets have been visible to a greater or lesser extent, but this week stargazers should have the best view as all five appear in the northwest sky.

Such a planetary display will not occur again until 2040. Beyond that the next five-planet lineup will occur in 2060 and after that in 2100.

Roy Bernardi, astronomy teacher at Imperial Valley College, said he will be taking out his astronomy class to see the planets Tuesday and Wednesday.

Bernardi said what makes the "unusual" event possible is that all five planets are in orbit on the same side of the sun as the earth.

"Those five planets are in a closer orbit to us" than they usually are, Bernardi said, using the word "close" in a celestial sense.

Bernardi said the planetary show does not have any importance in terms of the study of astronomy, but added it does generate interest in astronomy among the public.

He added in the past there were myths that such celestial events would lead to natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, but he said there is no truth to such stories.

For those wishing to see the night show, it will not be difficult.

According to Sky and Telescope magazine, 40 minutes after sunset Monday, Mercury will be visible at the horizon to the right of the crescent moon; Saturn will be to the upper right of the moon; then Mars will appear as an orange dot and Venus will be just above Mars; and Jupiter will be at the highest point above the other planets.

On Tuesday Venus will be paired with the crescent moon; just below Venus will be Mars; farther below will be Saturn; lower and to the right of Saturn will be Mercury; and Jupiter will still rise above all the planets.

But those wishing to see the planets do not have to wait for Monday or Tuesday. Go outside tonight to a dark area away from lights such as a back yard and look up toward the northwest. You should already be able to see some if not all five planets. The planets will still be visible Wednesday and throughout the month.

Bernardi said events like the gathering of planets can spark interest in stargazing, and if people are interested in astronomy, it is not difficult to start such a hobby.

He said anyone interested would need to obtain a star chart and then go outside and practice identifying the constellations because that will help pinpoint areas in space.

Once people know how and where to spot the constellations, they will know what section of sky to look toward when astronomers say a meteor shower will occur near a certain constellation or a comet will be visible in a particular portion of the sky.

Bernardi added a telescope is another important tool for stargazing. He said a good telescope costs around $200 and such a scope would open the night sky beyond what is visible with the naked eye.

He said with a telescope it would be possible to see Jupiter and its moons and the rings around Saturn, not to mention having an up-close view of Earth's moon.

The Imperial Valley provides some perfect settings for stargazing. Free of the clutter of metropolitan areas, one does not have to travel to far-off points in the Valley to have a clear view of the night sky.

A quick jaunt on a county road away from the lights of the cities and one can see a night sky bejeweled as countless stars become visible.

Bernardi said as good as the Valley is for stargazing, there are particles in the air that can affect the view.

He said for the best view, those interested in stargazing might consider visiting the Mt. Laguna observatory off Interstate 8 at the Sunrise Highway exit just before Pine Valley.

>> Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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