Everything you need to know about the upcoming planetary alignment
Celestial bodies are in constant motion. This creates a kaleidoscope of cosmic proportions in the night sky. Every evening that you look up, the stars and planets are in a different configuration. Sometimes, they form patterns that even the amateur astronomer can recognize and appreciate, such as the upcoming planetary alignment featuring Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, with the Moon thrown in for good measure.
While it is not uncommon for two or three planets to line up, five in a row doesn’t happen very often. To truly appreciate this rare event, it helps to have a little background on what is happening and how you can best view it.
How do the planets orbit around the Sun?
Our solar system has eight planets that travel in a circular path around the Sun. The reason planets travel round and round instead of launching off in one direction is gravity. Gravity is an invisible string that holds the planets in place, like a yo-yo string.
The closer a planet is to the sun, the stronger the gravitational pull is, so the faster it moves. Conversely, the further a planet is from the Sun, the slower it moves. In order of proximity to the Sun, the planets are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, with Mercury taking just 88 days to orbit the Sun and Neptune requiring 165 years to make the journey.
What is planetary alignment?
Since all the planets move at different speeds, there will be times when a faster-moving planet catches up with a slower-moving planet, and for a short time, both planets can be viewed in the same part of the sky by a person who is standing on Earth. When this happens, it is called an alignment. Alignments can occur with two or more planets. As you might expect, the more planets in an alignment, the rarer the event is. For instance, the next time all eight planets will be visible in the same portion of the sky is May 6, 2492.
It is important to note that alignment doesn’t mean the planets are perfectly lined up in a single file, with one behind another. Instead, it is a general term that means the planets form somewhat of a line across the sky. Because of this formation, some people refer to an alignment as a parade of planets.
Why is this alignment extra special?
The planetary alignment we will be able to view this week has an aspect that makes it even more special. It’s not just any five random planets lining up. It is the first five, all in order, like the cosmos just dealt the night sky a straight.
What is the difference between a moon and a planet?
According to science, it is very easy to tell the difference between a Moon and a planet: a moon orbits a planet, while a planet orbits the Sun. Because of this, you can often view the Moon during a planetary alignment as well. That means you can actually see six celestial objects in alignment this week.
When was the last time five planets were aligned?
The last time it was possible to view five planets in alignment was in 2004. That was 18 years ago. If you miss the event this week, you will have to wait until 2040 to experience this event again. The good news is, as long as the sky is clear, even if you live inland in a city.
When is the best time to see the alignment?
If you want to watch the whole event, you’ll need to start just before midnight on June 23. Saturn will appear on the horizon just before the witching hour. While you can spot this planet with the naked eye, you will need a telescope to see its rings.
Jupiter will rise above the horizon slightly after 1 a.m. on June 24. The planet will be easy to locate because it will be the brightest object in the sky, about twice as bright as Sirius, the brightest star.
The next planet to rise above the horizon will be Mars. This will happen a little after 1:30 a.m. Mars is small, but it can be distinguished by its orangey hue.
At around 3 a.m., Venus will join the event. To the naked eye, the planet will appear both larger and brighter than Jupiter, making it very easy to spot.
Mercury will be the fifth and final planet to rise. This may be the most difficult planet to spot, depending on where you are and your view of the horizon. It will rise around 3:40 a.m. and disappear about an hour later when the rising sun will make it seem to vanish from the morning sky.
If you do not want to stay up all night to watch this event unfold, the best time to see all five planets is between roughly 3:40 and 4:40 a.m. on June 24. At this time, you can also see the waning crescent moon nestled just below mars.
Where should I look?
To see this impressive event, you will want to be somewhere where you have as clear a view of the eastern horizon as possible. Just before dawn, Mercury will be close to the horizon, a little north of due east. On the other hand, Saturn will be the highest planet in the lineup, just north of due south. The planets will create an ascending line from east to south.
Will the planets form a straight line across the sky?
While it would seem that the five planets would form a perfect line across the sky, this is not the case. Think of the planets’ orbits as a hastily stacked pile of dishes, with each tilting in a slightly different direction. This tilt is called a planet’s orbital inclination. It means the planets do not travel around the sun in a horizontal line. When you view the planets in alignment this week, their position will be slightly staggered.
Are planetary alignments dangerous?
If you have ever watched any sort of science fiction movie, you probably learned that when the planets align, it creates an intense gravitational pull that causes catastrophic events that destroy the world. There is a very good reason why that genre has two descriptors, with one of them being fiction because this is not what happens at all.
While science states that large objects have stronger gravitational pulls, these planets are very, very far away. And even the largest planet, Jupiter, is tiny compared to the Sun. If every single planet lined up perfectly, the average person wouldn’t even notice their effect on the Earth. An oceanographer, however, might notice a very slight change in the tides. So, you have nothing to fear when the planets align.
What other celestial events will be happening this summer?
After the planetary alignment, the heavens have four other major events for us to marvel over this summer.
- The July Supermoon (July 13): Since the moon will be on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun, its face will be fully illuminated. It will also be closer to the Earth, appearing larger and brighter than usual.
- The Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower (July 28 into 29): This shower can produce up to 20 meteors per hour. While the event runs from July 12 to August 23, the peak will be July 28 into July 29.
- The August Supermoon (August 12): Once more, the moon will be on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun, so its face will be fully illuminated. It will also be closer to the Earth, appearing larger and brighter than usual.
- The Perseids Meteor Shower (August 12 into 13): This shower can produce up to 60 meteors per hour. While the event runs from July 17 to August 24, the peak will be August 12 into August 13.
What you need to view this rare planetary alignment
This refractor telescope has everything you need to get started in astronomy. It is a quality model with coated glass for brighter images, and it comes with a 3x Barlow lens, a red dot finderscope, a tripod and astronomy software.
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Beginners who are serious about the hobby will like this model from Celestron. It is specifically designed to be accessible to first-time users and features a smooth, accurate operation. The lightweight design makes it easy to transport.
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If you want to capture planetary images, this is a suitable telescope for the task. Purchase includes a smartphone adapter and a wireless camera remote to make it easy to take celestial photos.
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If you’d like a small telescope that offers maximum portability, this model can fit in the palm of your hand. However, it is still powerful enough to provide a satisfactory viewing experience. And it is compatible with a Bluetooth remote shutter if you want to take pictures.
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A telescope isn’t the only option for viewing objects in the night sky. This impressive model offers a crisp focus, low light functionality and 25x magnification. If you wear glasses, you will appreciate the long eye relief of this model.
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If you have a child who wants to start a new hobby, this telescope from National Geographic is designed for kids 10 and up. It is affordable but comes with all the necessary equipment your kid needs to get started viewing the stars and planets.
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