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Dr Robert Massey, astronomer
It is quite an unusual spectacle
 real 28k

Thursday, 6 April, 2000, 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK
Planets put on a show
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

An eye-catching group of three planets will shine in the western sky at dusk on Thursday and for the first half of April.

Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn will appear close together.

The brightest of the three is Jupiter. Look low in the west about an hour after sunset and you cannot miss it.

To Jupiter's upper left is the slightly less bright Saturn. Mars is quite a bit fainter, but it has an unmistakable orange tint.

On Thursday night, the crescent Moon shines close to these planets to create an especially lovely twilight sky scene as all objects come within five degrees of each other.

All three planets are on the far side of the Sun as seen from Earth. Mars is about 355 million km (220 million miles) distant, while Jupiter's distance is 890 million km (550 million miles) and Saturn's is 1500 million km (940 million miles).

After this week, all three planets will become harder to see as they descend lower into the west. They are on their way to an even bigger gathering of planets in early May, when Mercury and Venus will join them in the same general area of the sky. Unfortunately much of this grand grouping will be obscured by the Sun.

Nevertheless, the celestial line-up has prompted some people to predict that the planets' combined gravitational pull will cause huge tidal waves and earthquakes of massive intensity. It is all nonsense, of course.

Although the Moon and the Sun have a great influence on the Earth, and are responsible for our tides, the gravitational effect of all the other planets in our Solar System is negligible.

The trivial pull of gravity from Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, even if they are in approximately the same region of sky, will have absolutely no effect on the Earth.

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