For the first time in 62 years, five planets will line up across the sky. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn began to align two weeks ago in a formation that will reach its peak May 13. The sky show can be seen just after sunset on the western horizon.

Paul Wong
Visitors at the Cranbrook Institute of Science look at the planets start their alignment Friday. (AP PHOTO)

“The planets, in order from the horizon upward, are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter,” LSA senior Peter Susalla said. He added this is not the actual order of the planets from the sun and that other planets are too far away to be seen.

“Uranus and Neptune may be in the area also, but they can’t be seen without a telescope,” he said.

Susalla added that the sun moves across an imaginary line, called the ecliptic, in the sky. “The five visible planets are moving close together on this ecliptic, as we see them from earth,” he said.

Ray Villard, news director for the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said the alignment visible during the next few weeks is a result of the planets “moving around the sun like hands on a clock at different speeds and rates.”

Mars has an orbit lasting two years while Saturn has a 30-year orbit, so finding them along the same line in the sky is a rare occurrence.

“It depends on what you call a line-up. They are not all in a straight line from the sun, but you can draw a line between them like a game of connect the dots,” Villard said.

In the next few weeks, Mercury will begin to appear on the western horizon close to 15 minutes after dusk. Astronomy Prof. Charles Cowley said the best way to view Mercury is from a clear and high point.

“Mercury is the planet that is toughest on observation because it is the closest to the sun and lowest to the horizon,” he said. Besides Mercury, he said the rest of planets should be easily visible and can be seen without a telescope. The four planets will appear in what looks like a line in the night sky.

The Student Astronomical Society will be holding an open house May 17 at the observatory on the roof of Angell Hall to give students and community members a chance to view the planets.

Villard said the last time a similar planetary alignment, called super conjunction, occurred was in the 1980s. Superstition existed then that the alignment had effects on the ocean tides, but Villard said the planets aligning should have “no measurable effect on the earth.”

This specific planetary alignment will not happen again until 2040.

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