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The Astronomer's
Computer Companion

A guide to the best software, web sites, and computer resources for astronomers. Includes an excellent Win/Mac CD-ROM.
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  The May 2000 Planetary "Alignments"
On May 5, 2000, the five naked-eye planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn plus the Moon will gather around the Sun in an arc spanning 26°. A similar more compact grouping (19.5°) will occur on May 17 but without the Moon. Unfortunately, the planetary gatherings will not be visible because both events will be lost in the glare of the Sun.

Such planetary gatherings or "alignments" take place from time to time. This is because the planets are always in motion around the Sun and every so often one or more pass close to another. The planetary "alignments" in May 2000 are no different to other such events in the recent history of the Earth. The last time the five naked-eye planets, Sun and Moon were this close was in February 1962.

Crescent Moon, and the Planets Venus and Jupiter In a Rare Alignment, Shine Above a Farmhouse
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Nevertheless, celestial events such as the May 2000 event always generate unfounded claims that planetary gatherings will cause an adverse effect on the Earth through tidal or some "unknown" forces triggering disasters. Relax... Who can forget the nonsense surrounding the so-called Jupiter Effect in 1982 when a Jupiter-led alignment in March that year was somehow supposed to cause California to, once again, slide off into the ocean! Didn't happen then, won't happen now.

Tidal forces are well understood easy to calculate. The tidal forces for the May 2000 planetary gatherings are negligible. There will be no global catastrophe. You can learn more about planetary alignments, and in particular the events of May 2000, in an on-line article written by John Mosley of Griffith Observatory. "Planetary Alignments in 2000" is available at http://www.griffithobs.org/SkyAlignments.html.

And now for some stargazing...
Star gazers should take the opportunity this month to view M13, the finest globular star cluster in the northern skies. It is located almost midway between Vega and Arcturus. Also, using a pair of binoculars, take a look at the faint array of stars known as Coma Berenices (Mel 111). It's one of the nearest open star clusters to us. Clear skies until next month!


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