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On May 5, 2002, an unusual grouping of the three planets Mars, Saturn and Venus will occur. These three planets will form a tight triangle in the constellation Taurus, easily viewable in the western sky just after sunset.

Six Planets in Alignment on May 7, 2002

From Top to Bottom: Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn,  Mercury, and Earth. Also identified on this shot are the asteroids Medusa and athena, and the bright stars Betelgeuse in Orion and Elniath in Auriga.

Photo copyright Isaac Kikawada, San Jose, CA.

The view of April's Planetary Alignment, as seen on April 15, 2002. This view is facing due west just after sunset. On April 15, the crescent moon will be just to the left of Mars. These maps were drawn using SkyMap Pro 5.0 software.

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5 Planets Align 
April / May 2002

5 Planets Align, April/May 2002
C1/2002 Comet Ikeya-Zhang
Brazil Conjunction, May 14, 2002
Calif. Conjunction, May 14, 2002
Annular Eclipse - June 10, 2002

You may have missed the sight when it last occurred in 1997. That year's planetary alignment was a rare opportunity to see the five bright planets at one time with the naked eye. But you can make up this year, 2002, during the last half of April and the first part of May.

This month, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter and Mercury will be clearly visible between April 15 and 30, with Mercury joining in to shine in the night sky in the month-end. The phenomenon is being referred to as a 'clumping,' 'clustering' or 'alignment' of the planets.

Such a planetary alignment is a rare occurrence because all these planets are normally not visible in the same part of the sky. This alignment is being dubbed the planetary event of the century because such a grouping of the planets will not happen again this century.

The best time to see the planetary alignment is just after sunset in the evening, in the Western sky.

While this event is being dubbed a rare alignment, the planets will not actually be in one straight line. Instead, they will all be visible in a cluster, making them easy to spot.

One easy way to identify the planets will be to keep the Moon as your mark. On April 14, the planet that appears closest to the Moon will be Venus, on April 15 -- Mars, on April 16 -- Saturn, on April 17 -- Jupiter.

Venus will be the brightest of all the planets in the group, while Mars will be the dimmest.

In 1997, the planetary alignment was in November. There was another alignment in May 2000, but the planets were visible only in the morning, and in most places obliterated by the harsh light of the Sun.

Not often does anyone get a chance to observe all major planets at the same time. There are times when we are lucky enough to get some of them lined up together on the same side of the sky. Diagonally lining up of the five so-called naked eye planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will take place this year. An event, which is not likely to occur until 2040. Starting with four of the planets getting together with effect from 15th April 2002 onwards, Mercury will soon be joining the group by month end. The need of telescopes & binoculars to view this phenomenon will not arise, provided the sky is clear. The best time to observe would be soon after it gets dark following sunset. It is better to choose the western part of the city you live as the planets will be in the western direction.

Generally called a planetary alignment, it's not an alignment in true state. The planets will appear in a line as viewed from earth. All the five planets will be closest on 4th May 2002. After which, the cluster will start to dissipate. This will be a rare opportunity for beginners to identify the planets. Using the Moon as the guide it will be easy for beginners to identify the planets. On April 14, the planet that appears closest to the Moon will be Venus, on 15 it will be Mars, on 16- Saturn, on 17 - Jupiter. Planet Venus will be the brightest of five. Mercury will not be very easily visible as it appears soon after sun set. Jupiter will be the bright object overhead while Mars will be the reddish but dull one.

This event will provide fodder to so called astrologers and doomsday seers to predict some forthcoming disasters. Generally they claim such alignments cause disasters like earthquakes, floods, tidal waves etc. The theory of gravity seems to excite them. Newton's Law has been used by various opportunists for their whimsical needs. At first glance, these claims do seem interesting. Gravity is a long reaching force, and the planets are big. Can the combined force of gravity of influence reach across the solar system and cause all sorts of disasters here on Earth? Certainly not. Gravity depends on two things: the mass of the object pulling on you, and its distance. The greater the mass something has, the stronger it pulls, and the farther away it is, the weaker it pulls. The planets are at a great distance from earth and hence the resultant gravitational pull would be very, very weak. Almost nil. (This can be explained better in class during club meeting)

Let's take a look from another angle. Since the time it was formed 4.6 billion years ago, the Earth was probably solid throughout, but 500 million years of radioactive decay heated the Earth causing the metallic material to melt and separate from the non-metallic silicate material and sink towards the center of the Earth pushing the silicate ones up. The planetary alignments, like the one in current case may be rare, but given enough time, nearly 5 billion years, must have taken place several hundred times. If by what, most fortune tellers say is that such an alignment - a confluence of planets will have a strong pull on earth and its inhabitants leading to over all destruction, then several such destruction should have taken and destroyed earth. However, the earth is still around, as we know it. Recently similar alignments had taken place earlier in 1962, 1982, 1997 & 2000. No sort of disaster happened.

It's been an old habit amongst the astrologers to blame any disasters with the positions of the heavenly bodies. They had blamed the arrival of Halleys Comet for the 1985 communal violence in India. Several brighter naked eye comets have visited our skies since. Comet Wilson, Austin, Bradfield, Shoemaker Levy-9, Hyakuttake, Hale-Bopp etc. No violence took place during the period of their visit. Last year they blamed the 1999 total solar eclipse for the earthquake in Gujarat. But they failed to give us an explanation on Peru quake.

Astrologers tell you the sun spends one month in each constellation to a total of twelve constellations in a year. The cycle is repeated every ear. The zodiac constellation in which the sun is present, at the birth time of an individual then that zodiac sign is the sun sign of that individual. However, the astrologers do not tell you that the constellations are not the same size so that the sun does not move across these constellations at equal one-month intervals. Further they do not tell you that the correspondence of the zodiac with calendar months is shifted backwards by an entire constellation due to the Earth's ongoing precession on its axis. They also fail to tell you that the sun actually passes through fourteen constellations not twelve. After leaving the Scorpius constellation, the sun enters the Ophiuchus constellation. It stays in the Ophiuchus constellation for a longer period than Scorpius. The sun passes through Cetus briefly as it ambles through Pisces.  These are the few things that the astrologers do not tell you. In addition to the above the astrologers do not tell you how much money they make from gullible people.

In August 1126, seven planets viz. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus & Neptune were visible, clumped together, soon after sunset. The moon joined them on the 21st.  Observers might have seen the moon occulting some of the planets a well. It was an earth-centered world those days and none of the planets were "discovered" then. That time people believed that the sun went round the earth. With such a gathering of planets and the combined so-called effect of the moon occultation, the situation should have been worse. Nothing sort of extraordinary tides, earthquakes etc. by the combined gravitational pull of these planets is known to have taken place then. The earth had survived then and will continue to survive this time as well. Why don't you check the dates of such alignments of planets using software like Starry Nights and compare them with the disasters as listed in the Encyclopedia of Natural Disasters, by Lee Davis? We tried it and no match was found.

While there's a tendency to pay more attention to disasters caused by the gathering of heavenly bodies, causes of avoidable disasters are overlooked. Truly, disasters caused by nature forces are devastating, but they pale in comparison with ones caused by economic activities of man. Mindless violence, deforestation, extensive mining, drilling, nuclear explosion, oil spill etc. have all added to destruction. Let us pray that man may overcome his misunderstanding, hatred, greed etc. and learn to deal more kindly and compassionately with other inhabitants of this third planet - our one and Earth

It may come as a surprise, but many modern astronomers have never seen Mercury. It is one planet, which can be spotted only if you know where to look. Moving swiftly through the sky at maximum elongation it is never more than 28 degrees from the Sun as seen from Earth. Named after the Roman God of commerce it is the closest planet to the Sun and second smallest planet in the Solar system. Its diameter is 40% smaller than Earth and 40% larger than Moon. It's even smaller than Jupiter's moon Ganymede and Saturn's moon Titan. Mercury is visible for weeks in the evening sky and later in the morning sky. When observed at dawn or dusk, Mercury is so low in the horizon that the light must pass through 10 times the amount of Earth's atmosphere than it would if Mercury was directly overhead. Like the moon and planet Venus, Mercury also has it phases, which can be observed through a standard scope or binoculars. Our god of business "Booda" is one of the nine idols of the "Nav Grah" in most Hindu temples.

Named after the ancient Roman goddess of beauty and love, to the naked eye, planet Venus is the brightest of the planets in our sky. This is partly due to its size and partly due to its high albedo or reflecting power. It was once called Hesperus, when it was the morning star and Phosphorus, as an evening star. Venus, with its diameter of 12,104 kilometers, is almost a twin of Earth. Though it's almost the size of the earth it's not the same as earth. It's a rocky sphere blanketed by dense yellowish clouds. The yellowish color is due to presence of sulfuric acid. For a naked eye Venus can be very bright, at times, almost as bright as the moon. It's easily noticeable in the evening or morning sky at such times. Sometimes, if you are sure of its exact position; you can even see the Venus in broad daylight. Several amateurs have taken photographs of Venus in broad daylight. Venus also has its phases like the moon and Mercury. During it's crescent phase you will notice a faint glow on the darned region. This is called Ashen Light. 

Oxidized crystalline rocks on the surface of Mars give it tinged blood-red color. It was natural that the ancient observers linked it with combat and war. The Babylonians called Mars as Nergal, their God of War. Ares was a brave, quarrelsome but arrogant Greek God of War. His two sons Phobos and Deimos (Fear & Panic) accompanied Ares. Ironically both the moons of Mars are named after them. The only other red object in the night sky, a star in the Scorpio constellation was named Antares (Anti-Ares). However the Roman god Mars enjoyed the portfolio of both War and Agriculture. So important was Mar to the Romans that the first month of the Roman year was named March after Mars. It's no wonder that even for ancient Indians Mangal (Mars) represents anger, aggression, ambition, courage, lust for power, roguery etc. Hindu marriage is not complete without the Mangal sutra; a necklace made from blood red corrals. 

It is the only planet in the Solar System besides the Earth that has polar ice caps. Made of water ice and carbon dioxide, these ice caps expand and recede seasonally like those on Earth. In the middle of the 19th Century astronomers described Mars as a hospitable place for life forms.

The supreme deity of the Romans, Jupiter is indeed the dominant planet in the solar system. A gaseous giant, Jupiter is far more massive and less dense that the small, rocky planets of the inner solar system. It's over 300 times the mass of earth and about two and half times the mass of all other planets put together.  No wonder, Jupiter is referred to as "Guru" in Indian mythology. Also called Bhrispati, there are several temples in India dedicated to Jupiter. A majority of Indians observe fast on Thursday to seek the blessings of "Guru".
It's very easy to observe planet Jupiter. No wonder, it was the first planet studied by Galileo. With the help of a standard telescope or good pair of binoculars, the four Jovian moons and the belts of Jupiter will be easily visible. Keeping a nightly log of the position of the four satellites of Jupiter will be a rewarding experience. However, you will need a high power telescope to observe the red spot of Jupiter. Note Jupiter rotates very fast, almost once ever 10 hours.

Perhaps there is no object is easily identifiable with any science related to sky, than the Planet Saturn. Named after Roman God of Agriculture, Saturn is one of the most awesome, spectacular & fascinating celestial objects. Bollywood stars flock the temple of Sani Deva at Sani Singnapur, near Amednagar, where a temple is dedicated to Saturn. Saturn is the outermost of the planets visible from Earth with an unaided eye. Through a telescope the ring of Saturn is the planet's outstanding feature. Planet Jupiter, Uranus & Neptune too have rings, but not as prominent. It was the ring of Saturn, which baffled Galileo Galilei when he first observed them in1610. Planet Saturn has over twenty moons, the largest being Titan, which is also the 2nd largest moon in our solar system. Titan is bigger than planets Mercury & Pluto. The atmosphere contents of Titan comprise of 94% Nitrogen compared to 76% of the Earth's atmosphere. The rings are visible through any standard telescope or binoculars and observers would be able to get a glimpse of Titan as well.

Manoj Pai, Ahmedabad, Gujurat, India

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