Monday, June 27, 2005

Close Encounters of the Planet Kind

Mercury Venus Saturn with Border
By Jack Myers

      In a rare celestial event, three planets; Mercury, Venus and Saturn, will appear so close together that observers could be forgiven for thinking that they are on collision course.

      Stargazers can watch this unique spectacle starting Friday night. All you need to do is gaze into the western part of the sky after sunset. Scott Young of the Manitoba Museum Planetarium says, "What we're seeing is the clockwork of the solar system. As the planets orbit (the sun) at different speeds, they will sometimes catch up and pass each other, just like cars on a racetrack. We are seeing a time when three planets just happen to be in the same direction from the Earth at the same time."

      Charles Darwin University astronomer Geoff Carr says that such a close encounter occured in 1985. This type of cosmic arrangement will be seen in 2008 as well, but the next event is slated only for 2070, "A dual planetary conjunction is common, but a triple conjunction is rare.

      The three have been converging towards each other for weeks and will be at their closest in the next few nights. But the celestial ballet will continue into next week, as Venus and Mercury have another very close encounter," he says. The best view can be had on Sunday evening. Saturn will begin to swing away from Mercury and Venus on Monday.

      Jack Horkheimer, executive director of the Miami Planetarium called the event a "super-close meeting" and said, "I call this the weekend `when worlds collide. If you look west just after sunset, at twilight, it looks like three worlds are on a collision course.

      If you hold your pinky out at arm's length, you'll be able to cover them up. And they'll be so bright that the city lights won't affect the view." He added that these maneuverings are an easy way for people to become re-engaged in star watching because the planets can be seen without instruments.

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