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Tuesday, 23 April, 2002, 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK
Rare planetary show snapped
Photograph taken on 21 April by amateur astronomer Maurice Gavin from south-west London with planets marked
View (enhanced) from south-west London on 21 April
Star gazers have been enjoying a once in a life time sight of five planets lined up in the sky - all visible to the naked eye.

The rare grouping of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will not be seen again in a similar alignment for a century.

The next 30 nights or so will herald an astronomical feast with the planets remaining visible as their patterns change each night and they continue to move around the Sun.

The photograph above was taken on 21 April by amateur astronomer Maurice Gavin from south-west London. It has been enhanced graphically to show the positions of the planets.

A view of the skies without binoculars will currently show five clear dots of light, seemingly the appearance of bright stars.

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
In a few weeks' time Mercury, which is faint, will disappear from view - below the horizon.

Venus is the brightest of the planets, followed by Jupiter. Mars, which is reddish in hue, may be faint but Saturn should be clearly visible.

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.

Over the next two or three weeks, the planets will move closer together and become more bunched.

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.

Tony Sizer, planetarium lecturer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, UK, said Venus and Mars were currently moving towards Jupiter.

Taking photographs

He watched the skies from Croydon, south London, and said enthusiasts should keep an eye on the planets throughout the next month to see the sequence in motion.

"It is best described as a line-up of dots and is a spectacular sight from the point that it is pretty unusual," he said.

"It is important for astronomers because they can see all the planets with the naked eye, but I do not think it will lead to the end of the Earth as was historically feared.

"The planets can currently be seen across the world though they are most visible in areas not covered with bright light, in the Northern Hemisphere."

The wandering comet, called Ikeya-Zhang (AP)
Comet Ikeya-Zhang is also visible in early April
The Royal Observatory has enjoyed many visitors in recent days, with people keen to learn how to get the best view.

Mr Sizer said photographs could be taken using a camera and tripod in order to gain exposure over a few seconds, which would not be possible to achieve if taken by hand.

A similar arrangement of planets happened two years ago but was not visible from Earth because of the position of the Sun.

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

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

It would have last been visible in the 1600s.

Read a selection of your comments on your sightings all over the world.

We observed the wonderful sight in the sunny Bahamas just after sunset. It was a fascinating experience.
Ashley, Bahamas

Went up to the high ground at Richborough Castle, Kent, after sunset. Part cloudy sky, but good view of Venus and Jupiter. Saw 4 Jupiter moons through small telescope. Later Saturn (with rings looking saucer like) came clear followed by Mars. During next 30 minutes cloud thinned and we were able to see all 5 clearly with naked eye.

Asked my 11 year old daughter to think of us when she watches the next alignment in 70 years time!!
John Clandillon-Baker, UK

It is a great show -simply spectacular. Don't miss it!!
Krishna Chaitanya, India

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

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:

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