You didn’t miss the planet alignment. That’s because it never happened.
In one of the most egregious science news goof-ups of the past half century, many mainstream media sources urged people to look toward the western sky last Monday or Tuesday evening and see a rare line up of planets.
You had to assume it was real. People on social networks later raved about how beautiful the planet alignment had been. (I told those who said that to me that they were undoubtedly confusing bright stars for planets). You may have been among the millions who felt bad because you didn’t see it. Maybe it was cloudy in your location last week. Or maybe you looked but saw only one super bright star, which is hardly an alignment of anything.
But those knowledgeable about astronomy were dumbfounded. Because, sure, the sky periodically lets the planets form various eye-catching configurations. I remember a gorgeous lineup witnessed by hundreds of people on the evening of October 18, 2013, when a pre-arranged event on the Walkway over the Hudson was made more spectacular by a bright planet lineup that resembled a string of pearls.
So what happened last week? First, there was no alignment, line-up, or any other configuration of planets. Second, to see three of the six planets required having a perfectly flat, unobstructed horizon, like someone on a Malibu cliff house enjoying a view of the Pacific clear down to sea level. Third, the planets were never all visible at the same time. You’d have to venture out at different times to see them all. One didn’t even appear until the next morning, all alone. Finally, at least one required a telescope or, at minimum, decent binoculars. Actually, binoculars were needed in order to clearly see four of the six planets.
Still sound like a don’t-miss event? We’ll get back to that in a moment. For now, here’s what really unfolded. At 6 p.m. last Tuesday evening, March 28, a person with that ocean-like clear horizon toward the west might see Mercury and Jupiter down very, very low. Like, just four degrees high, or the width (not length) of two fingers above the horizon, and this in bright dusk twilight making them virtually invisible. But technically it was possible, especially if you swept the western horizon with binoculars.
Then you’d look much higher up and see the single planet that was an easy standout — Venus. Brighter than any true star or planet, it dominated the western sky. But here’s where things get weird. The next planet, Uranus, hovered a few Moon-widths to the upper left of Venus. Problem was, Uranus is 6th magnitude, too faint to appear in the twilight unless one used a telescope or at least binoculars. And did any media source mention that you needed optical aid for this? But if you waited a half hour until full darkness fell, and were away from the lights of any town or city, you might glimpse Uranus with just the naked eye. But by then low-down Mercury and Jupiter would have set, so that ends any sort of planet alignment.
Finally, if you looked below the Moon you’d see orange Mars, which was medium bright and easy to find. But not as bright as many of the stars scattered around it. Thus, no non-astronomer would identify Mars or distinguish it from Orion’s brighter stars in its vicinity. And, hey, what about Saturn?
For that you’d have to go to sleep. And first set the alarm for 6 a.m. the next morning, and then have yet another super-flat horizon, this time toward the east. Then Saturn would be there, super low in the dawn twilight, which was too bright to let you see Saturn’s medium glow unless, yes, you guessed it — you swept the low east horizon with a telescope or binoculars. And that was the whole story.
Find any alignment in all that?
This is unfortunately a trend in mass-media astronomy reporting the past 20 years or so. Newscasters tell you to go out and see a “supermoon,” but the Full Moon actually never gets visibly larger than its average size. Or the weather person announces a “meteor shower” that you shouldn’t miss. But these announcers are apparently unaware that there’s a bright Moon tonight, which masks most of the shooting stars. And that this is one of the year’s two-dozen minor “showers” where just a few skimpy meteors might be seen each hour — and then only if you’re not in a city.
No major media source seems exempt from this sloppiness. I love the New York Times, especially after they’d devoted a half page to a rave review of my book, Zoom. But on June 10, 2013 they did a story about Alpha Centauri, including a single prominent photo showing that star as a brilliant blue. One of my former students wrote me to ask, “But isn’t Alpha Centauri yellow?” Yes it is, so I contacted the Times editor. Result: They didn’t care. “We got that image from the European Space Agency” the editor told me, with a tone that implied, “And do you imagine you know better than them?”
“Listen,” I tried one last time, “No star shows detail or size in a photograph. All you’ve got is its color. And this is a famous star, the nearest to Earth, and also the night’s third brightest, and half the world sees it blazing overhead as distinctly yellow-orange. Showing it as blue means it’s faked, and by convention should be captioned as a ‘false color image.’ Don’t you care?”
No, actually they didn’t. And, apparently, neither did all the countless media sources that proclaimed a rare planet alignment last week. So who can you trust? Well, Astronomy magazine, and Sky and Telescope magazine, and (in these matters) the Old Farmer’s Almanac, and your local astronomy club’s members. And this page, right here. Count on it.