Residents of the Upper Peninsula are no strangers to the wonders of the night sky, but beginning on the evening of Wednesday, May 22, through Wednesday, May 29, stargazers will be granted a special gift even more uncommon than the Aurora Borealis.
The Planetary Trio of Jupiter, Mercury and Venus will move closer and closer to one another each evening until the evening of Sunday, May 26 when will they appear so closely together that a nickel stretched out at arm's length will cover them.
Although this heavenly alignment may not be as grandiose as the infamous Aurora Borealis, the sublime splendor of these three planets coming together should beckon the eyes of even the most casual observer towards their sparkling beauty.
WHAT IS IT?The Planetary Trio occurs when three planets that are less than 5 apart from one another. Although it happens every few years (the next time they come within 5 of one another will be October, 2015), the night of Sunday, May 26, 2013 is especially unique because Jupiter, Mercury and Venus will appear 3 from one another--a subtle distinction, but one that warrants admiration. An alignment like this will not happen again until 2021.
WHERE DO I LOOK?You??ll want to search the western sky as soon as the sun has set. The trio will be visible even where there is heavy light pollution. But you must have a clear sky with no clouds and no trees or tall buildings to obstruct your view. The average observer will have no trouble spotting the Planetary Trio with the naked eye. However, all three planets will fit easily into the viewfinder of a single pair of binoculars or a telescope. You??ll probably find Venus first, because it??s the brightest of the three planets. Once you've found it, you should easily find Mercury and Jupiter. The alignment will be visible from anywhere in the world. So you can??t miss it if you time it right. After dark, you'll only have an hour or so before Jupiter sinks below the horizon, so pick your observation point well! If you have the right equipment, you might be able to take a picture of the Planetary Trio.
Despite the fact that the planets will appear very close to one another, they are in reality immensely far apart. They also appear similar in size because they are so far away. In fact, Jupiter is so big that you could fit 1,321 Earths INSIDE of the planet Jupiter! It only looks small because it is so far away.Stargazer's Schedule:
May 23- Jupiter and Venus are close enough to each other to see both planets with binoculars simultaneously.
May 24- Mercury joins the group and the triangle begins to take shape. They'll keep their triangular shape until the 29th. *BONUS* A Supermoon will be fullest at 4:26 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, May 25! (The Moon will undergo lunar perigee. This means it will be at its closest. We also call it the Flower Moon, Rose Moon or Strawberry Moon.)
May 26- The Planetary Trio will be at its apex. Jupiter, Mercury and Venus come together in a triangle nearly the size of a nickel.
May 27- The triangle begins to scatter...
May 28- Venus (brightest planet, second only to the Sun and Moon) comes within 1 of Jupiter (2nd brightest planet). The two brightest planets in our solar system will be within 1 of each other!
Surely our ancient ancestors noticed these delicate changes in the night sky. For example, the Egyptians were well-documented sky watchers. The basis of what we know today can be attributed to their findings. The Mayans were also extremely keen observers of the sky. Their knowledge of the heavens is considered incredibly complex, even by today's standards. Of course, they notoriously tracked and predicted positions of the Sun. They also watched the planets closely and considered Venus more important than the Sun. Mars, the Milky Way, Pleiades, Orion were all also vastly important to Mayan culture. How much knowledge that was lost forever when the Conquistadors burnt the libraries in ancient Mexico, Peru and Chile? What wisdom was forgotten forever in the fires of the Library of Alexandria?
The night sky will be clear enough to do your own stargazing this Memorial Day weekend. As you gaze up at the stars and you find this Planetary Trio, maybe you will ask yourself whether we've surpassed our ancient ancestors with our expensive telescopes and satellites and rockets. We've touched the Moon. We've brought the heavens to us. Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) tweets his findings daily from the Red Planet. During its twenty-three year mission (so far) the Hubble Space Telescope has shown us what oblivion looks like. Would the Mayans be impressed by our success? Or have we squandered our resources? Enjoy the night sky this holiday weekend and marvel at its beauty and wonder!