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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Planetary Traffic Jam

Air Date: Week of

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Host Steve Curwood speaks with David Aguilar of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics about a unique chance to view the five visible planets in the western sky this spring.


CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. If you spend an evening outside over the next few weeks, you'll get a chance to see a unique grouping of the five visible planets. David Aguilar is with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and he joins us now. Hi there.


CURWOOD: So, what are these planets we'll get to see?

AGUILAR: First of all, you're going to get to see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

CURWOOD: Now, if we want to check out this planetary traffic jam, where should we look? And, what exactly are we going to see?

AGUILAR: Just look west at sunset, and its going to be displayed right in front of you. It's going to be a gigantic traffic jam of the ancient gods across the sky, in a straight line originating from the western horizon where the sun set, and moves almost up to the center of the sky.

CURWOOD: This straight line is known as the "ecliptic?"

AGUILAR: That's correct. It's the ecliptic. It's also what the Greeks and Romans considered the "highway of the gods," because these planets were gods to them. It's this line, this highway across the sky, that the 12 constellations in the sign of the zodiac are found.

CURWOOD: Now for someone who really wants to take a good look at this, the best time of day to go out and look is?

AGUILAR: At sunset. Go out at sunset; watch the sun go down, because that's going to be your starting point. As it gets darker, as the twilight begins to fade, you'll begin to pickup first Jupiter, because it's the brightest, then Venus, then Saturn. And then, finally, Mercury and Mars are going to pop into view.

CURWOOD: What is the very best night to take a look at this?

AGUILAR: The two nights that I am absolutely looking forward to are, first of all, May 5th. That's when the planets Mars, Saturn and Venus are going to come together, and form a beautiful equilateral triangle in the sky. Then, on May 10th, the planets Mars and Venus are going to occult each other, or come so close together. Actually, they don't occult. But they come so close together that, to the naked eye, they will appear as one star-like object in the sky.

CURWOOD: Now, when was the last time we saw that triangle you talked about for May 5th?

AGUILAR: Well, the last time-- the most famous time that we found, when we set our star charts back, was 2 B.C.

CURWOOD: What did this look like back in the year 2 B.C.?

AGUILAR: Well remember, first of all, there weren't any lights. So the sky would have been very dark and, more than likely, over the desert regions, quite clear. So, it would have been stunning. Many people believe that it may have been a formation of planets that the Magi saw, and started them on their journey from what we call Iraq today to the Holy Land in Jerusalem.

CURWOOD: And if the Magi had been in Iraq, which direction would this have appeared to have been?

AGUILAR: They would have been looking west. And, directly west from them is the country we call Israel today, but Jerusalem. Now I must say, there are some historians, and one of them right here at Harvard-Smithsonian, believes that the Magi wouldn't have paid any attention to these planets. And in fact, they were looking for different signs in the sky. So, there's a lot of controversy over what this might have meant to early people.

CURWOOD: David Aguilar is with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

[MUSIC: Trisomic 21, "Hazy Ridge," A MILLION LIGHTS (Play It Again Sam - 1987)]

AGUILAR: You're welcome.




Harvard-Smithsonian website on the planetary line-up">


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