A Planetary Gathering of the Close Kind!!
In late April and early May, all five naked-eyed planets are visible simultaneously in the western sky. Look about 45 minutes after sunset. About halfway up is brilliant Jupiter. Shining below Jupiter is a string of planets: Venus, Saturn, Mars and Mercury. Throughout May these five planets will form and reform new patterns as they move against background stars.
On Sunday, May 5, face west just after sunset to see a nearly equilateral triangle of 3 planets. The most brilliant of these is Venus. A fainter Saturn appears to the right of Venus and a much fainter Mars shines above the two. The planetary triangle will be less than 3 degrees on each side. For the casual stargazer, that means that the planets will be so closely together that all 3 will be visible at the same time in a pair of binoculars. The night sky of May 5 will have all 5 planets from Jupiter to Mercury spanning only 36 degrees.
The planets will move in their orbits throughout the month of May. Night after night, you can watch as the planets change their positions. Venus and Mars slowly swap positions and appear to move above Saturn. You don't need any special equipment to see this event. Just go out in the early evening and look west to see the five planets. Stargazing doesn't get any easier than this.
This spectacular convergence of the five planets has been in the making since January 2002.The most dramatic movement has been happening since late April and will continue until mid-May. Known as a planet alignment, it occurs when the moving planets of our solar system appear to gather in the sky. The sun and the planets seemed to be roughly lined up, hence the term "alignment".
Take advantage of each and every clear night to watch this planetary show. You don't want to risk getting clouded out on some of the upcoming special dates you will be hearing about through the media. The last compact and visible five-planet array was in February 1940. Astronomers tell us that another good one won't take place until September 8, 2040. Take the time this month to enjoy the springtime celestial event while it lasts.