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Planetary alignments visible over the weekend

February 24, 2012 3:34pm
For those of you who love gazing at the night sky, here’s something to look forward to. On February 24, 2012, at about 6:20 pm, the Moon and three planets will make some sort of alignment in the evening sky. To catch this celestial display, all you need are your eyes and a clear view of the western horizon. A beach area is best. 
 
First, wait for the Sun to set. Then, note the place where the Sun sinks below the horizon. From that point, look up diagonally to the right and you will see a tiny white dot. This is Mercury. This planet is rather difficult to spot because it is small and you are likely to miss it in the glare of the setting Sun. And since Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, after the Sun dips into the horizon, it will only be a short while before Mercury will do the same and also vanish from view. 
 
A short hop upward from Mercury and you will find the crescent Moon. Most people admire the Moon when it is full. But personally I find the Moon the loveliest thing in the sky when it is just a thin slice of light. I dare you to look at it through binoculars and disagree with me. You will see countless craters, of different sizes, some with central peaks, others with rays. You will also see the dark patches which Galileo thought were bodies of water but are actually volcanic rocks. 
 
From the Moon, look farther up and you will encounter Venus. There’s no way you can miss this planet. Venus will be the brightest thing in the sky. In the U.S. its unusual radiance has often alarmed the public into making frantic calls to government agencies about an unidentified flying object. Through a small telescope, it will look not appear round but gibbous, the lighted portion will be more than half but less than full.
 
Planets Jupiter and Venus join the moon at dusk Friday. Faint Mercury briefly joined the unusual planetary alignment. Roehl Niño Bautista
As you tilt your head back and look even farther up, you will find another bright object. It is not as bright as Venus, but it is bright nonetheless. This is the Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. If it were hollow, a thousand Earths could fit into it. With sharp eyes and a 10 x 50 binoculars, you will be able to see that Jupiter is not alone but accompanied by four teensy-weensy dots, the so-called Galilean satellites. Three of them, Io, Callisto, and Europa, will appear in a cluster close to Jupiter while Ganymede will be a short distance away.
 
If you miss this alignment, you can catch up on a different configuration on Saturday. At about the same time, the Moon will be closer to Venus. On Sunday, the Moon will be between Venus and Jupiter. And by Monday, the Moon will be above Jupiter. 
 
In case you are wondering how I know all these things, all you have to do is visit http://www.stellarium.org/, download the free software, explore, and learn.

And for those of you who love to find meaning in events such as planetary alignments, I am sorry to say that you will be disappointed: the alignment isn't real —merely an artifact of perspective.

If you were in a different vantage point, say, floating in space far above the Sun and looking down on the solar system, there would be no such alignment. But that doesn't make it any less beautiful to see, nor the Universe any less lovelier. — TJD, GMA News

Jun Obille is a geologist who works as a Science Education Specialist at UP NISMED (National Institute for Science and Mathematics Education Development). He loves to read, climb volcanoes, photograph birds, and watch the night sky.
 


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