The five planets visible to the naked eye?Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn?will line up in the sky, beginning April 20. Astronomers say this rare arrangement may not be seen again for a century. A similar arrangement of planets happened two years ago but was not visible from Earth because of the position of the Sun. The five planets will be visible without a telescope.
This will be a planet watching opportunity that will not be repeated for 100 years. Similar groupings will occur in September 2040 and July 2060, but the planets will not be as close together or as visible to the naked eye.
Robert Warren of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England says the best time to view this lineup is half an hour after sunset in an area away from lights where there is a clear horizon. He says, ?Looking west, note where the sun sets (just past due west) and take a line up and left. About 11 O'clock?if the sky were a clock?you will see the planets in order of distance from the Sun. Mercury, being very close to the Sun, will be just a few degrees off the horizon and quite faint and Jupiter will be about 60 degrees so you'll have to look up quite high. Over the few hours after sunset you?ll be able to see all the planets follow the Sun below the horizon in an almost exact straight line.?
Over the next two or three weeks, the planets will move closer and appear bunched together. By May 4, Saturn will be ?overtake? Mars to form a triangular pattern with Venus. The Moon will often be in the same part of the sky as the planets, and will appear to move between them from night to night.
Warren says, ?Since so many astronomical events come and go very quickly this one is interesting because it gives us something to view over quite a sustained period. This demonstrates perfectly how the planets?Greek for ?wandering stars?baffled ancient astronomers who could not understand why they moved differently to everything else in the night sky and how they could overtake one another.?
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On March 18, the newly found comet Ikeya-Zhang made its closest approach to the Sun. Now another Japanese observer has discovered a new comet. This second comet has a chance of also becoming visible without a telescope later this month.
The new comet was discovered by Syogo Utsunomiya on March 20 at twilight.Utsunomiya made his find using only binoculars. Several days later, a preliminary orbit for the newly named comet Utsunomiya indicated it would reach its closest approach to the Sun on April 23 at a distance of approximately 43 million miles. At that time, the comet could be bright enough to be seen without a telescope.
To learn more about the mysteries of space, read ?Dark Matter, Missing Planets and New Comets? by Tom Van Flandern, click here.
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