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Planets Align – Doomsday Or Astronomy Delight?

Planets Align – Doomsday Or Astronomy Delight?

First published on Spectator.co.nz…

Compiled by Selwyn Manning.

Our Solar
System's Planets align... Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Uranus, Neptune are all lining up from east to west in a celestial curve in our daytime sky – unfortunately for New Zealanders they all except for Jupiter sneak over the western horizon as night falls.

The celestial array is better seen from the USA’s western Pacific coast – the lineup won't be seen again until 2040. Doomsayers claim this is it! We’re finished! Astronomers say nah that’s crap, this is simply a unique and delightful array of planets.

If you want to track the planets, check out this amazing site. Go to… http://www.cosmiverse.com/sky/skyviewcafe/cafe.html and key in your latitude and longitude co-ordinates. For example for Auckland City, New Zealand = latitude 36°: 52’ and longitude 174°: 45’. Or for Oregon USA = latitude 45° 32' North and longitude 122° 40' West.

The doomsayers predict that the combined gravity of the planets and moon will pull Earth out of its orbit or change the tilt of its rotational axis. Others argue that the alignment will generate earthquakes, tsunamis, or volcanic activity. Still others predict the planets will raise giant flares on the sun. But Astronomy Magazine says don't worry, none of these predictions will come true.

The force of gravity diminishes with the mass of the object and the square of the distance. Even the most massive planet, Jupiter, is only one-thousandth the mass of the sun. And given the great distances in the solar system, the gravity of the planets has negligible effects on Earth. In fact, the combined gravity of the five planets today will exert a force just 0.00003 times that of the sun.

The effect of the tidal forces exerted by the planets (their ability to pull more strongly on one side of Earth that the other) is even more minuscule. "A Boeing 747 flying at 30,000 feet produces a greater tidal effect on Earth's surface than do all the planets," says Astronomy magazine associate editor Richard Talcott.

Each evening, the alignment will assume different shapes, as the five planets take their orbital paths around the sun. The planets orbit in the same plane, like grooves in a phonograph record, only at different distances from the sun.

Similar bunchings occur every 20 years or so, though they are not always visible. The last they were this visible was in 1940.

Mars image courtesy of Nasa
and Hubble.comIn May 2000, the five planets formed a tighter bunch but were so close to the sun that they were washed out by its glare.

In 2004, they will appear together again in the night sky, but will be spread over a much wider area, said J. Kelly Beatty, executive editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. They will be as easy to spy at a single glance again until 2040.

First published on Spectator.co.nz…

Compiled by Selwyn Manning.

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