Dance of The Planets

A drama unfolds in the western sky after sunset from the middle of April to early June 2002. All 5 planets known before the invention of the telescope (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) will be visible to the naked eye for much of this period. The moon passes through the gathering between 14th and 18th April, and again in mid-May and mid-June, so provides a useful guide as to where the planets can be found.

A grouping of 5 planets like this, so close together and easily seen, will not occur again until July 2060. Take advantage of a clear night to see this one!

Click here to understand where the planets really are in relation to the Solar System, and why when they appear close in the sky there is no real danger of a collision.

4 June 2002: The Last Dance of the Planets

This picture of the 4th June represents the last event I captured in the Dance of the Planets. The final event of the Moon passing Jupiter and Venus a few days later was masked by cloud so I did not see it. The planets have now dispersed and continue on their separate ways, though Venus will continue to put on a showing during the summer and I will endeavour to keep track of its changing appearance.

Jubilee Conjunction on 4 June 2002

A picture taken in Hay - on - Wye, from near to yesterday's one, though about half an hour earlier. The planets are therefore higher up in a lighter, though beautifully clear, sky. The movement of Venus (the upper planet) relative to Jupiter in the course of a day, just over 1 degree, is apparent when you compare the two.

The planets again appear of similar brightness, though this time it is due to the reduction in picture size to suit the Internet - in the original, Venus is clearly the brighter.

4 May 2002, 22:19BST (21:19UT). Minolta Dimage 7, 15.1mm, 1/6s @ f/3.5, ISO100

Click on the dates in the diary below to see individual events and the dates here for views of the changing line-up of the Moon and planets on other days...

April 15, 16, 21, 24, 26, 28, May 4, 7, 14 - 16, 18, 31, June 3, 4.

Diary of Events

Sunday 14 Apr: very thin crescent Moon near Venus, now very bright low in the NW - can see from about 30 mins after sunset onwards until about 9.30pm BST (assuming a clear view to the horizon).

Monday 15 Apr: thin crescent Moon near Mars, quite faint but distinctly orange - should be easy to see from sunset + 1 hr onwards.

Tuesday 16 Apr: crescent Moon eclipses Saturn, a rare event known in the trade as an "occultation". Times depend on where you are, but is visible throughout the UK and lasts longer the further north you are. As a guide, seen from London Saturn will disappear behind the dark side of the Moon at 10.00pm BST and reappears on the sunlit side 26 minutes later. In Edinburgh it disappears at 9.46pm BST and reappears at 10.26. Just as with an eclipse of the sun, the shadow travels from west to east across the surface of the Earth so people to the west will see it a few minutes earlier. Because Saturn has an appreciable size (its rings can be discerned in binoculars) it will take about 80 seconds to disappear and likewise to reappear.
Link to Occultation Report Entire event was successfully observed - please visit here to see a report and moving pictures of it!

Thursday 18 Apr: Moon near Jupiter

About Wed 24 Apr - Sat 4 May: Over a period of about 10 days Mercury will be below and to the right of Venus. The relative positions do not change much, and closest approach of 7 degrees in reached on Apr 29th. Mercury is a planet normally hard to find because being so near the Sun it is seldom seen in a dark sky. The presence of Venus therefore provides a good opportunity to locate this elusive planet - start looking from about half an hour after sunset until about 9.30pm BST. Binoculars will help see Mercury in the twilight - it is nowhere near as bright as Venus, but for the first few days it should be visible to the unaided eye once located, for it is in fact brighter than Saturn until 1st May (but not as easy to see being lower down and in a not completely dark sky). As Mercury swings round the Sun it presents progressively more of its dark side towards us so the brightness drops off as the days go by, so try and get in nearly on this one!
As of 21st Apr Mercury is visible to the naked eye below and to the right of Venus.

Mon 6 - Fri 10 May: A conjunction of Venus, Mars and Saturn occurs over these 4 days. All should be revealed about an hour after sunset.
On 6th the three planets will be seen as as an equilateral triangle about 3 degrees from each other.
On the
7th Venus passes 2 degrees north of Saturn
On the 10th Venus passes just 0.3 degrees north of Mars

Monday 13 May: Very thin crescent Moon 3 degrees south of Mercury. By this time Mercury will be faint at magnitude +2 so this is strictly a binocular / telescope event, but it provides one last chance to catch Mercury before it disappears.

Tuesday 14 May: Thin crescent Moon 1 degree from Mars and 3 degrees from Venus.

Wednesday 16 May: Moon 2 degrees from Jupiter

Sun 2 - Mon 3 June: Venus passes 2 degrees from Jupiter. Whatever your view on the British Monarchy, this conjunction of the two brightest planets is a fitting event to commemorate the Queen's Golden Jubilee holiday!

Wed 12 - Thu 13 June: Moon is just below Jupiter on the 12th and passes just 1 degree from Venus on the 13th. This is the final event of the Dance of the Planets that will be visible.

Mon 1 July: Mars passes 1 degree from Jupiter, but this event will be impossible to see as by now both planets are too near the Sun.

Planetary Mugshots

As well as taking shots of the whole scene I have dusted off my old telescope and have pressed it into service with my digital camera to capture the planets individually in close up.

Atmospheric turbulence often spoils the view, especially of the lower planets, so I have used a crafty trick of combining several shots of each planet into one. This averages out the effects of turbulence and sharpens up the view, though Mars and Mercury were always so small and / or low down that little can be seen except for an overall shape and colour.

Venus should improve during the summer as it comes round the Sun towards us, but the others disappear into the twilight and will not be seen again until the reappear in the morning sky in the autumn..

Click each planetary mugshot in the rogues gallery below for more details...

Mercury 23 Apr 2002 Venus 1 Jun 2002 Mars 23 Apr 2002 Jupiter 11 Apr 2002 Saturn 11 Apr 2002
Mercury Venus Mars Jupiter Saturn
23 Apr 2002 1 Jun 2002 23 Apr 2002 24 Apr 2002 11 Apr 2002
All the shots are to the same scale (0.3 arc seconds per pixel) to demonstrate the relative sizes of the planets as seen from the Earth. Of course their differing distances means that this translates into a different actual scale on the planet itself - click each planet for more information on the planets' actual size and for links to fully captioned pictures.

External Links...

Spaceweather: a good diary with diagrams of where the planets will be on various nights.


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