By Spencer Kittelson
Date: April 17, 2002
A great planetary alignment is occurring this evening that won't recur for decades. Just after sunset in the western sky you can see in ascending order Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, the moon and finally Jupiter. On the morrow, the moon will be right next to Jupiter.
Mercury can only be seen at twilight and only for a little while since its orbit is so close to the sun. Venus is the brightest "star" in the sky and above Mercury on the horizon. Jupiter is the next brightest and very high up near Gemini. In between are Saturn which is golden and close to Taurus (the V shaped horns of the bull). Mars is reddish and almost exactly in-between Saturn and Venus.
If you have access to a telescope of at least 50 power or so with fair optics you can easily see the spot and bands on Jupiter, several of its moons and the rings of Saturn.
To assist you with the viewing, go to this web site: http://www.heavens-above.com/
This is a GREAT web site for getting all kinds of astronomical and satellite information. Click on the Select your location link to select your country and then type in the city name where you live. Click on the correct colored city name and presto! you've got your coordinates locked into a reusable URL. Save the URL as a bookmark so when you come back you will be at the main page and ready to go.
Down the page a ways is the Whole sky chart link. Click on this to get a great chart that you can use to find items of interest in the sky. By default, it cranks out a chart for the current time of day which is mostly useless during the daytime. You can adjust the date/time to get a new chart. Set it for about hour 20 today and you will see the planets and moon all lined up.
Over the next few weeks the planets will realign themselves as our perspective on their orbits change, resulting in very close encounters. It's going to be a great show.