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Friday, 19 April, 2002, 21:45 GMT 22:45 UK
Spectacular planet show promised
Star and planet positions from Greenwich, UK, (58n21 - 0w00) just after sunset.
UK skywatchers should look west just after sunset
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By Helen Briggs
BBC News Online
The five planets visible to the naked eye have lined up in the sky.

Astronomers say the rare grouping of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn may not be seen again for a century.

This demonstrates perfectly how the planets - Greek for 'wandering stars' - baffled ancient astronomers

Robert Warren, Royal Observatory, Greenwich
A similar arrangement of planets happened two years ago but was not visible from Earth because of the position of the Sun.

It was accompanied by scare stories that our planet could be pulled off its path or struck by extraordinary tides. The Earth, of course, survived and astronomers say this year's planetary show is no cause for concern.

For UK skywatchers, the best view of the five planets began from about 19/20 April. A good online sky chart will help navigation of the heavens whatever your position Earth.

Good view

Robert Warren of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, UK, said the best time to view them would be about half an hour after sunset in an area away from lights where there was a clear horizon.

He told BBC News Online: "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.

How to see it
Choose a place away from lights with a clear view
Look west in the sky just after sunset
Look at the 11'o'clock position and you should see the planets together in the same patch of sky
"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 together and become more bunched.

By 4 May, Saturn will be "overtaking" Mars to form a triangular pattern with Venus.

The Moon will often be in the same part of the sky as the planets, appearing to jump about between them from night to night.

'Wandering star'

Dr Warren added: "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.

The wandering comet, called Ikeya-Zhang (AP)
Comet Ikeya-Zhang is also visible in early April
"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."

The array of five planets will provide 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.

The cluster follows another rare astronomical treat. The brightest comet for nearly eight years has been visible in the western sky after sunset in recent few weeks.

The wandering comet, called Ikeya-Zhang after its Japanese and Chinese co-discoverers, re-appeared in the inner Solar System just a few weeks ago.

It would have last been visible in the 1600s.

Have you seen the five planets? What did you think? We would be especially interested to know if you have taken photographs of the cluster. Send us your comments using the form below.


A celestial show witnessed from the middle of the Mediterranean

Tim Peco, Malta
It was fantastic to witness such a celestial show even from Malta, here in the middle of the Mediterranean. Despite the light pollution here, we could see the planets aligning.
Tim Peco, Malta

What a great show. I did not think that I would be able to see the planets so clearly.
Gazisrocky, England

Nice show. On Friday night I saw Venus and Jupiter, which for the previous two nights each made their own nice show with the moon. I was able to point out all but Mercury to several family members. Now I can try to find Mercury tonight, weather permitting!
Ed Ardzinski, USA

We drove down the M6 yesterday through Cumbria as the sun set and gradually all the planets came into view over the Lake District hills, except Mercury which I'll be looking for in the days to come. A memorable journey!
Alan Carr, England

It was a superb sight!

Réjean Dubois, Canada
Thirty minutes ago (at 0045GMT, 2045 local time) I could see this marvellous planetary alignment without binoculars. I saw Mercury very low at the horizon, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, and the moon. It was a superb sight!
Réjean Dubois, Canada

I went out to watch it. The first I saw was Saturn, because Venus and Jupiter were initially obstructed by cloud. However it was too cloudy to see the others, so I went home a bit disappointed because I was hoping to see Mercury. Still with a couple of weeks left to view this show I hope to see it in all its glory soon (and hopefully take a few pictures on my SLR camera).
Chris Jeanes, UK

Leaving a restaurant I looked up at the sky and saw several bright stars. It was only when I returned home and checked the BBC news page, as I do every night, that I realised what I had seen. Fabulous!
Ian Thomas, California, USA

I went outside at 2040 local time - it was a beautiful sight. The moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and Venus were all visible. I just missed Mercury, which was blocked by the trees.
Matte Ben, Québec City, Canada

Wow excellent, I can see this keeping me busy over the next few evenings. Everyone should go and have a look.
Mladen, UK

The view from Milton Keynes was mixed - the horizon was very brown so no chance of seeing dull Mercury. But Venus was very bright along with Jupiter. Trained a small telescope on Saturn - what a sight, just happens to be at the optimum viewing angle just now - I could see the rings so clearly. Also could see the four Galilean moons of Jupiter and the dark cloud bands - it was great. Mars was a disappointment, mainly due to the afore mentioned horizon and light pollution.
Andy Henderson, UK

Had a great view tonight of the planetary alignment. Watched the planets slowly come out as darkness set in. Could see Jupiter and Venus first plus the moon then the other Saturn then Mars. Couldn't see Mercury, however, due to some obstructions to my view on the horizon. Took lots of photos with my digital camera which came out quite well but unfortunately don't show all the planets!!
Jeff, UK

Fantastic! What a show..
Sue Hurman, North Wales

Typical British weather - cloudy. A repeat of the much vaunted eclipse of 1999!
Dave Rowley, England

On the evening of 17 April I step outside just about 2030 Local Time in Colorado Springs, Colorado USA to view the planetary alignment. The view of the night sky was spectacular in the crisp clear mountain air. Suddenly I caught movement in the sky almost precisely along the same path upon which the planets were aligned. To my amazement, I saw 2 very bright lights high in the sky. One trailing the other in tight formation. It was not an airliner. Other airliners were easily visible in other parts of the sky so there was no mistake. No, it was the International Space Station with the US Space Shuttle just pulling away from it, soon after its undocking. I verified location of Shuttle and ISS on the NASA website at the time. What a treat!
Mick Gleason, USA

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Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.
The BBC's Sue Nelson
"Five of our closest planetary neighbours can be seen together at the same time"
Astronomer, Sir Patrick Moore
It will go on until the middle of May
David Aguilar, Harvard Centre for Astrophysics
"The last time this happened was 1940"
See also:

03 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Cosmic alignment heralds no disaster
06 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Planets put on a show
22 Apr 02 | Sci/Tech
Comet returns after 341 years
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