Dance of the Planets Reaches Crescendo

May 2, 2002

Contacts:

Alan M. MacRobert, Senior Editor
617-864-7360 x151, amacrobert@SkyandTelescope.com

Roger W. Sinnott, Senior Editor
617-864-7360 x146, rsinnott@SkyandTelescope.com

Note to Editors/Producers: This release is accompanied by two publication-quality illustrations and an animation; see below.


If you haven't yet seen the great planetary gathering that's unfolding in the west at dusk, the first half of May brings your best opportunity. All five naked-eye planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — are well placed for viewing in the western twilight sky about an hour after sunset.

Start by looking high in the west for bright Jupiter; you can't miss it. Next find brilliant Venus down to Jupiter's lower right. The other three planets are much fainter (especially little Mars) and are gathered in Venus's general vicinity.

"If there's one date not to miss, it's May 14th," advises Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine. "That's when the crescent Moon is closely paired with brilliant Venus. Just look west in twilight — it'll be a dramatic sight. The other planets will emerge as darkness grows deeper."

The finale of this season's planetary convergence comes on June 3rd: a close conjunction (pairing) of brilliant Venus and Jupiter.

Descriptions of the planetary arrangement each evening for the next few weeks can be found in the article "A Rare Dance of Planets" elsewhere on this Web site.

Close gatherings of the five naked-eye planets are relatively rare. Every 20 years, we get a period a few years long within which these worlds can all gather in more or less the same part of the sky as seen from Earth's perspective. The last widely visible five-planet bunching was in February 1940. (A tight grouping occurred in May 2000 but was hidden in the Sun's glare.) Another good one won't take place until September 2040. So for many of us, this year's display represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The twilight gathering of planets above the western skyline provides a fine "photo op" for anyone wanting a memento of the occasion. According to Dennis di Cicco, a veteran astrophotographer and senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, "Today's popular point-and-shoot cameras, including the new generation of digital cameras, can easily capture this celestial spectacle." Simply place your camera on a firm support such as a tripod or a windowsill, disable the flash, frame the scene in the viewfinder, and open the shutter for a few seconds. If your camera offers manual overrides, set the focus for infinity and the lens to its maximum aperture (lowest f/number). Because twilight changes rapidly, take a set of "bracketed" exposures lasting about 1, 2, 4, and 8 seconds each. At least one of them is likely to come out well.

Having a tree or building silhouetted in the foreground will make the picture's composition more interesting, di Cicco suggests — and it will help during the processing of your film, since the planets create such small specks on the negative that the frame may look blank and not be printed.

Stargazers worldwide can use Sky & Telescope's Interactive Sky Chart to simulate the planetary parade as seen from their particular location. For example, click on the following link to simulate the sky as seen from Miami, Florida, at 8:50 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on May 14th, the night the planets are bunched closest together: view sky chart.


Sky & Telescope is making the following illustrations available to the news media. Permission is granted for one-time, nonexclusive use in print and broadcast media, as long as appropriate credits (as noted in each caption) are included. Web publication must include a link to SkyandTelescope.com.

Click on each image to download a high-resolution version.

View to the west-northwest 1 hour after sunset
Dazzling Venus grabs your eye in the west-northwest at dusk. Much dimmer Saturn and Mars cluster close to it and form a roughly equilateral triangle with it on May 5th. Jupiter is outside the frame to the upper left. This view is for observers in the middle latitudes of North America, but it will be much the same for skywatchers throughout the continent and all around the world's midnorthern latitudes.
Sky & Telescope diagram.
View to the west-northwest 1 hour after sunset
The crescent Moon pairs up with brilliant Venus in the west-northwest at dusk on May 14 — a beautiful sight! Look for the other planets forming a roughly diagonal line with them as shown here. This view is drawn for the middle of North America but will be reasonably accurate throughout the continent. European skywatchers: move each Moon symbol a quarter of the way toward the Moon symbol for the previous date.
Sky & Telescope diagram.

Additional illustrations like those above are available for May 23rd, May 31st, and June 3rd.

Click on the links in the next image's caption to download an animated GIF showing the shifting positions of the naked-eye planets from April through early June.

Planet animation
Since April, and through early June, the five naked-eye planets are dancing their way across the western evening sky, forming a variety of attractive patterns as they move against the background stars. This view shows a single frame from an animated GIF image, which is available in two versions: 428 by 359 pixels, 732 kilobytes and 634 by 532 pixels, 925K.
Sky & Telescope animation.