Planetary Alignment 2016

Planetary Alignment 2016

I wouldn't call it obvious, not to the untrained eye at least.  The planets are strung out along the Ecliptic arc (path of the Sun) covering almost the full 180' arc, with Venus, Jupiter and the Moon being obvious objects that stand out from the distant stars.  Saturn and Mars look more like stars, but with a little focus you can clearly see they also lie on the on the Ecliptic arc and do infact appear to be discs of light whereas the stars are all tiny points.

Starting in the west tonight, Venus was bright and obvious.  She goes through phases just like the Moon does, however this morning she was almost at full phase and over-exposed in the telescope.  I thought I saw some brown hue on the western side of Venus, but that's probably due to the over exposure.

Saturn, the jewel of the solar system, is next in line sitting just below the Scoprion with a earthy brown coloured disc that the ancients decided was the God of Agriculture.  While not as bright as Venus the detail through the telescope is something everyone should see.  His rings are inclined almost at full tilt this year and the largest gap (Cassini division) between the rings is clearly visible.  Titan, his largest moon and the only one with an atmosphere is always nearby but with a little detailed observation you'll see a few other moons as well.

Heading further west almost at the meridian is Mars.  Our rusty little neighbour isn't giving away too much detail right now as it's almost 220 million km away, about 3 times its closest distance at opposition.   Definately worth a look, but you won't see the rover tracks from Earth.

Jupiter, the giant of the solar system is spectacular.  I could easily see the major cloud bands in his atmosphere that divide the planet into 5 major zones, and the 4 Galilean moons were clearly visible as well. 

Finally tonight the Moon was almost at full phase near the western horizon, flooding the setting sky with light.  It's not the best time to view the Moon, typically we'd want to wait for the week from 3rd quarter to New Moon.  Unfortunately Mercury is still a little close to the Sun and was hidden in the breaking dawn this morning, but give him a week or two and he should be visible as well.  Waitangi weekend will be perfect for both the Moon and Mercury, let's hope the weather agrees.

Is it an allignment?  Not really, the last picture in this blogs should the orrery (top down) view of the solar system as it is today and you can clearly see the planets are far from lined up.  But they do form a nice arc from west to east and clearly pinpoint where the Sun will rise.

So was it worth getting up at 4am, absolutely.  It's rare to get all the visible planets in the sky at once and this is an opportunity to compare them with the naked eye and telescopes.  Don't miss out, contact your local Planetarium, Observatory or Astronomical Society and get them out at 4am!

Posted: Saturday 23 January 2016