Planetary Traffic Jam
by Bonnie Moss (c) 2002

Attention Star Gazers!

In late April and early May, 2002, a rare planetary get- together in the sky will delight even the most amateur astronomist. It is believed that the world hasn't seen anything like the planetary traffic jam that is expected to occur this coming month, early May, 2002! So mark your calendars- between April 27th to May 10th, 2002

According to report from Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysics in Cambridge MA, this rare planetary alignment will allow sky observers to see every planet in our solar system in a single evening! Philip Sadler, Director of Science Education states that there will be other opportunities to see the planets in different configuration, but it won't be anything like this one for at least another 70 years- this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

On May 10, to add more excitement to the skyscape, planets Mars and Venus will appear to pass so close to one another that to the naked eye, they will appear like one bright heavenly object.

Going back to history, more than 2,000 years ago, this same grouping of planets may have caught the attention of the biblical Magi, on April 1, 2 B.C., the planets Mars, Saturn, and Venus came together to form a perfect equilateral triangle over the city of Bethlehem. Now in the 21st century, amid the turmoil in the Middle East, the ancient Roman gods of Love, War and Agriculture/Wisdom are coming together to look down upon this war ravaged landscape once again.

During this up-coming planetary alignment , the planets will not be arranged behind one another or the Sun. Instead, they will present a beautiful line across the sky from the horizon to near zenith. For almost three weeks, anyone looking west at sunset will be able to see the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars,Saturn and Jupiter. At about 4 A.M., with a large sized amateur telescope, this grand tour will include the apperance of Uranus,Neptune, Pluto, a few wandering asteroids and perhaps even Comet Ikeya-Zhang in the east.

By quickly glancing down on the ground, the planets would have completed the grand tour of the solar system. Sadler adds that seeing nine worlds in one night is something few astronomers can say the've accomplished.

Of note, this configuration would not have meant anything in the time of the Magi, it wasn't until Keppler became fascinated with the harmony of the planets in the 16th century that the idea of a planetary configuration came about, to attach a scientific explanation to this event.

Would this event be religiously significant or just an astronomical oddity? One thing , this event is not something to be missed, for nothing like it will occur in our lifetime. Experience the chance to ponder our own planet Earth orbiting around with eight other planets, perhaps bring our world back into perspective.

How to Capture The Grand Tour on Film

( printed from Harvard Education)

OK - the good news. It isn't that hard to photograph the planets as they line up across the sky. Now, the bad news - if you have a new digital camera or one of those point and shoots, you are out of luck. For this assignment, you will need an old-fashioned 35mm camera with manual exposure controls. Color film will work best. Choose an ASA speed somewhere between 200 and 800. Color print or slide film will work equally well.

Attach your camera to a tripod, screw in your remote shutter release (to keep your shaky fingers off the camera during your extended exposures) and point it towards the West, 30 minutes after sunset. Using a lens in the 50-28mm range, open it up as fast as it will go and frame in the planets as they spread across the sky. Be sure to include the horizon at the bottom of the picture frame. It may help to turn your camera sideways to make sure you can include horizon to Jupiter in the shot. (Photographers with an artistic eye may include something great in the frame like a light house or snowy mountain peak).

Take a series of exposures beginning at 1/2 second, 1 second, 2 seconds, 4 seconds, 8, 16 and 32 seconds. Wait a few minutes and repeat again. No need to use a stopwatch, simply count the seconds off with "one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus trick".

For the triple conjunction on May 5 or the double alignment on May 10, a 150-300mm telephoto lens will record the event more dramatically. Starting at 1/60 of a second, bracket your exposures until you reach 3 seconds. Due to the Earths' rotation, any exposures longer than 3 seconds will begin to record the planets as footballs instead of nice round spheres.

By recording the events each evening at the same time over a two to three week time period, it will become apparent quite quickly that the planets are wandering back and forth at different speeds across the sky. And, you will have managed to document a traffic jam of cosmic proportions! Good luck - hope your skies are clear! AND Send in your photos to . We just might publish them on our web site! Cambridge MA

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This page was created May 4, 2002.