The Dance of the Planets
A Never-Ending, Never-Repeating Dance.
I'm a naked eye astronomer, as were all astronomers before the invention of the telescope, four centuries ago. I love to watch the sky at night, observing the slow dance of the planets amongst the stars.
Today we get only a dim glimpse of what earlier peoples must have seen in skies free from dust pollution and, in urban areas, from the light pollution that bleaches out all but the moon and brightest stars.
Here are some things you can see in the evening sky, after sunset, as the never-repeating, never-ending, cosmic dance continues.
2016 started uneventfully with lone Jupiter rising in the East. But a dramatic dance was about to unfold.
As Jupiter rises to the mid-heavens in the Spring. Mars appears in the East, closely followed by Saturn. They have a brief close encounter in Mid-April. Mars pulls ahead for a while. But in the summer drops back again towards Saturn. By August they meet in a lovely conjunction.
Meanwhile Venus is coming out from hiding behind the setting sun, and rises up to meet the descending Jupiter. Suddenly Mercury appears, overtaking Venus, and reaching up to Jupiter. The three come together in a lovely triple conjunction on Aug 26-27. And at the same time as the Mars-Saturn conjunction. All five visible planets in the sky at once, and in such a neat formation. However, since the Jupiter-Venus-Mercury meeting will be close to the sunset, you will need a clear unobstructed sky to see it.
And is that were not enough, the June Full Moon falls on the summer solstice. The last time was 1948.
Following the conjunctions Mercury heads back towards the sun, followed closely by Jupiter. Venus continues on up to meet Saturn as it slides down towards the Sun in late October.
She then goes on up towards Mars in early 2017. But never quite makes it. Laggardly Mars hovers just a little way away, and reluctantly Venus lets go and drops back towards the sun. Altogether a magnificent ballet.
The twelve Zodiacal constellations (Taurus, Pisces, Gemini, etc.) also lie on the ecliptic -- they are the constellations the planets pass through.
For spotting planets, it is helpful to know where the ecliptic is. The ecliptic is the imaginary line stretching across the sky, along which the sun, moon and planets all appear to move. If, for example, the sun has just set, and the moon is up high, then the ecliptic is the line from the sun (somewhere just over the horizon) through the moon and beyond to the opposite horizon. The planets will also be not far from that line. Or, if you can see two planets, but no moon, the line through the two planets defines the ecliptic.
The Story So Far
April 1,1989 seems as good a place as any to begin chronicling
Mars and Jupiter are in conjunction. Two bright planets hanging
together near the setting sun.
Saturn is at opposite side of the sky, rising as Jupiter
sets. This opposition happens once every twenty one years. Over
the next eleven years the two will slowly approach each other,
meeting up in May 2000.
Venus and Mercury are also in conjunction, but invisible.
They both are hiding directly behind the Sun.
Soon swift Mercury comes out from behind the sun, followed
by the slower moving Venus. The two rise to greet Jupiter.
Late April: The Sun, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter and Mars lie
equally spaced in a straight line along the ecliptic. But Venus
is still too close to the Sun to be seen.
May: Mercury reaches out towards Jupiter, almost touching
her before falling back towards the sun. drawing Jupiter down
A month later Venus appears, reaching out towards Mars. They
touch for a while, then Mars falls into the glare of the setting
Now lone Saturn takes the lead, rising into the Eastern sky.
Venus hangs expectantly low in the West. She waits there patiently,
while Saturn makes her lonely march across the sky. In mid-November
they pass. On Dec 1, the crescent Moon lies gracefully between
At the same time, bright Jupiter returns to the Eastern evening
sky, rising as bright Venus sets.
At years end, when Venus finally drops back toward the
Sun, Mercury and Saturn are there to welcome her, though too
much in suns glare to be easily seen.
Now it is Jupiters turn to trek alone along the ecliptic.
By March 1990 it is high overhead.
Mid April, Mercury pops up briefly to welcome Jupiter. The
other visible planetsVenus, Mars, and Saturnare meanwhile
strung out in a nice line in the pre-dawn sky, with Saturn high
Mid-summer and Jupiter has gone to join the sun, to be replaced
by Saturn rising into the midnight sky. Rising earlier each month,
she makes another lone traverse, and in December disappears again,
leaving Mars to take the limelight in the East.
Jan 1991: Mars is now overhead. Venus reappears in the West,
while Jupiter rises in the East. Together the three bright planets
span the night sky.
The stage is now set for a spectacular dance. Over the next
six months Mars, Venus and Jupiter will pull together as if joined
by an elastic thread, heading towards a remarkable triple conjunction.
I watch week by week through the Spring and into the summer,
as they pull closer and closer. By May they are an unmistakable
bright trio high in the West.
By mid-June they have all arrived at the same point in the
sky. People are standing out in the streets to marvel at this
once in a lifetime conjunction. And right on cue the crescent
moon passes by to add her radiant glory. A magical sight that
I will remember forever.
By August the three heroes have fallen into the setting sun
in August, leaving Saturn to make another lonely trek across
the evening sky.
The bright trio continue their dance into the early morning
sky. By early November Venus and Jupiter are dancing high in
the pre-dawn sky. Then Venus bids farewell, and slowly drops
back toward the sun, leaving Jupiter to cross the sky alone once
Venus does not finally disappear from the morning sky till
early 1992. Passing behind the sun she reappears in the evening
sky in August just in time to meet Jupiter whose come the long
way round. Venus hands Jupiter on to the sun, then hangs around
low in the West for five months while Saturn makes her way across.
On the winter solstice Venus rises up to meet Saturn as she
passes on her way to the sun. Venus has been in the evening sky
for five months now. But still stays, climbing ever higher. The
reason? Mars, the third member of our heroic trio has finally
January and February, 1993: Venus climbs higher and higher
towards the approaching Mars. But alas she cannot hold on. Finally
she drops back toward the sun, escorted by Mercury making one
of his brief appearances, leaving Mars shining brightly overhead.
But by now Jupiter has returned in the East and is chasing
Mars across the sky.
Early June and Mercury rises above the setting sun. Jupiter
is at its zenith and Mars midway between Mercury and Jupiter.
A nice line of 3 planets.
Mercury drops back into the sun, and Jupiter continues chasing
Mars, eventually catching her in August, just above the sunset.
Through the autumn, Saturn performs another lone pass across
the evening sky. She looks much like another star in the night
sky. And you have to know where she is to spot her. But she is
a star that isnt normally there, a point of light moving
slowly across the sky.
When she eventually arrives in the West, Saturn is met by
Mercury rising to perform a close conjunction in February of
May 1994: Venus appears in the Western sky, balancing bright
Jupiter rising in the East.
She hangs there through till September by which time Jupiter
has traversed the heavens and the two meet and together disappear
into the sunset.
1995: Five years ago Jupiter and Saturn were in opposition.
But Saturn has been slowly catching up, and now rises while Jupiter
is still high in the sky. Each year the two slowly draw closer,
heading towards their spectacular meet in 2000.
Saturn completes another traverse in January 1995, and as
she sets in the West, Mars is rising in the East, very bright.
Later, in the early morning hours, Jupiter and Venus rise together
in brilliant conjunction.
In March, Venus drops back toward the rising sun, briefly
met by Mercury making a bright early morning appearance.
Now it is Mars turn to traverse the sky alone. But by
the time it is half way across, Jupiter has reappeared in the
East, and traveling faster, slowly draws closer.
Mid-November 1995: Jupiter catches up with Mars, and simultaneously
Venus rises out from behind the setting sun to join them in another
magnificent triple conjunction. Though this time they are lower
in the sky, and closer to the sunset, so not so easily visible
as their triple conjunction four years previously.
Dispatching Jupiter and Mars on their way, Venus hangs around
to meet Saturn, who by now is not so far behind. On Feb 1, 1996
the two meet. Then Saturn disappears into the sunset, leaving
Venus to climb high into the Spring dusk. She stays there, brilliant,
till the middle of summer.
Jupiter now rises an hour after sunset, followed by Saturn
four hours later, and Mars just before dawn.
Throughout the last three months of the year, Saturn and Jupiter
are both in the evening sky. Jupiter completing its journey at
years end. Followed by Saturn three months later, leaving
Mars rising in the East at the Spring Equinox of 1997.
late Spring 1997, a special visitor arrives, Comet Hale-Bopp.
First she appears in the dawn sky - many mornings I set the alarm
just to get up see it, and then went back to sleep again. After
passing around the sun it is in the evening sky. This is a particularly
bright comet, and an added surprise, a two-tailed one.
By the summer solstice, Mars is high in the West, and Jupiter
reappearing in the Eastern sky. Venus and Mercury rise in tandem
at the end of July. Mercury soon slips back, but Venus hangs
on, rising slowly to meet a rather faint Mars in a lovely conjunction
on the autumn equinox.
Saturn is now well up in the East, and Jupiter at her zenith.
Mars and Venus hang around together waiting for them. Mars and
Venus move back into conjunction on the winters solstice.
Then Venus drops back, and Mars retraces her steps, going
up to touch Jupiter in mid-January 1998.
But Mars is still not done. As Jupiter fades into the suns
glare, Mars hangs on waiting for Saturn, who by now is only three
hours behind Jupiter. At the spring equinox, Mars is close to
Jupiter in the West, and Mercury has popped up to join them,
forming a lovely equilateral triangle.
Ten days later they move into triple conjunction, in a straight
line across the ecliptic. A most unusual sight.
Over the last six months Mars, though faint, has made met
all four of the other visible planets. And mars continues to
play an interesting role in the great 5-fold conjunction coming
Through the summer of 1998, the evening skies are quiet. The
activity is in the morning. Jupiter leads Saturn high up into
the sky, followed closely by Venus, and closer to the sun, Mars
By midsummer, Jupiter is rising at midnight, with Saturn two
hours behind. By autumn they are both high overhead in the middle
of the night. Unmistakably become a pair again after nearly twenty
By years end they are high overhead at dusk, with Venus rising
to welcome them both in the West.
Mid-February, 1999, and Venus meets Jupiter, with Mercury
not far behind her.
Early March and Mercury almost touches Jupiter, while Venus
goes on to meet Saturn.
As the others pass into the sunset, Venus hangs high in the
West throughout the spring and summer. That unmistakable brilliant
evening star, in the same place night after night, month after
Slowly Mars makes her way across. But not fast enough. July
and Venus is finally making her way back towards the sun.
Then another one of those moments of a lifetime. A total solar
eclipse. Total solar eclipses themselves arnt that unusual;
theres one every year or two. But this one is happening
in my home land, close to where I grew up. It turns out to be
a most remarkable experience, and in some completely unexpected
ways. (Report on eclipse).
In the following months Mars does something very strange.
Instead of following her normal path into the sun she stays around
taking up a sentry stance low in the South-West. Its as if she
knows what is coming in nine months time, and is waiting for
I too know what is coming, and watch expectantly as the dancers
take up their positions. September and Jupiter is rising followed
closely Saturn. The first time I see them, a nearly full moon
is sitting right between them. Month by month they draw closer
and closer, heading towards their grand reunion.
At the winter solstice, Jupiter and Saturn are paired up high
in the South. While Mars waits dutifully on her spot in the West.
This night there is a full moon, and a very special one. The
winter moons are always brighter because she is higher in the
sky. But this time she is also at her closest approach to the
earth, which makes her an additional ten per cent brighter. The
brightest full moon for 133 years. And just a week away from
the turn of a millennium.
At the hour of the full moon, deep in the night, I complete
the final edits on a new book, then sit watching the moon so,
so brilliant, shining through a patch in the clouds.
In the spring Mars nine month wait is rewarded. Late
March, Jupiter and Saturn have nearly met up with Mars, and Mercury
rises high and bright to create an unforgettable line in the
evening sky. I remember the first time I saw them, I stood captivate
by their brilliant line cutting across the dusk sky.
At the spring equinox, as Mercury dropped back, Jupiter and
Saturn have drawn much closer to Mars, forming a tight line of
three in the evening sky.
Three weeks later, Mars does a neat pass by Jupiter and comes
to sit between her and Saturn in an even tighter line. This is
the tightest conjunction all these three planets for a hundred
years. And on April 7th the new moon joins them.
Unfortunately, the final moves of this piece are hidden from
our view. As Jupiter and Saturn drop into the suns glare,
Venus, who has been very bright in the early dawn, and Mercury
are approaching from the other side of the sun.
Mars, however, is the last to drop behind back behind the
sun. She has been in the night sky now for a total of twenty
three months -- probably the longest performances I will ever
Mid-May, and all are behind the sun together. Nothing quite
like this has happened in recorded history. And its occurring
at the very time that Jupiter and Saturn touch each other for
the first time in twenty one years.
Because all five visible planets are behind the sun, the night
sky is now unusual in another way. For several weeks, no planets
are visible, not in the evening, not in the middle of the night,
and not in the dawn. This will be the only time in my life that
the night sky will be totally devoid of planets. A period to
be deeply savored, while imagining the grand reunion taking place
behind the sun.
Over the next few months they all reappear in reverse. Mercury
first, making a quick dart into the evening sky. Then Venus reappears
in July, remaining low but bright in the West through the end
of the year.
Jupiter and Saturn appear in the morning sky, but now in reverse
order, Saturn slightly ahead of Jupiter. Now they are very slowly
pulling apart again, off once more on their twenty year dance.
By October they are both rising in the evening sky, opposite
bright Venus. Venus stretches way up into the sky at years
endso bright that it is possible to see her in the daytime,
if you know where to look. Meanwhile Jupiter and Saturn have
risen equally high in the East.
Late January 2001, Mercury shining bright and silver, comes
up to create a line of four planets stretching across two thirds
of the sky.
Venus finally drops back in late March, and Jupiter and Saturn
follow her into the sun three months later. But not before Mercury
has risen to dance around them both in delicate arc.
Mars is now rising at dusk, and preparing the way for another
Through the summer she moves slowly across the sky, as if
waiting for the others. And she is unusually bright. On the solstice
she is at her closest approach to the Earth, and the brightest
for 13 years.
By November Saturn is rising at dusk, at her brightest for
30 years, followed closely by Jupiter. Together they march across
Late February, 2002: Venus emerges from behind the sun at
dusk and for next three months Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Venus
are visible. Another clear line across the evening sky.
In April Mercury joins them, initiating one of the most remarkable
dances of Ill ever see.
Not for forty years will all five visible planets be in the
sky together and as tightly spaced as they will
be over the coming weeks. If there was ever an auspicious time,
this is it (and it certainly turns out to be so in my own life).
The second half of April, all five draw a neat line across
the Western sky. Mercury, brilliant in the clear air, then Venus
shining at her brightest. Above her, Mars now dimming quite rapidly.
Then Saturn, and on top them all Jupiter, nearly as bright as
April 13-18, the new moon passes by, spending a night with
each of them.
May 1, 2002: Mars, Saturn and Mercury have all draw much closer
to Venus. On May 5 Mars, Saturn, and Venus form a beautiful tight
equilateral triangle. At the same time Jupiter high above forms
a much larger equilateral triangle with Venus and Sirius, the
brightest star. Another one of those sights I will never forget.
One huge triangle and another a tenth the size, nestling in the
corner. And Mercury showing off below them all.
(And while all this is taking shape, there is comet the other side of the sun. But despite getting up very early a couple of times, I didn't get to see it. )
As the triangle dissolves, Mars passes so close to Venus as
to be virtually indistinguishable. Two days later, Mars and Saturn
hang directly below Venus, while Mercury, Venus and Jupiter draw
an equally clear intersecting line up along the ecliptic.
Mercury now begins to drop back, but not before the new moon
joins in, passing the planets again, as if kissing each good
night. The night she lay between Mercury and Saturn was the last I saw of Mercury on this round - and the last time till 2040 I'll see all five together. And they won't be as close again till 2070.
The last move in this line-up is a brilliant conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in early June. Then jupiter follows Mars, Saturn, and Mercury into the sunset. Venus hangs around for a couple of months, then too goes her way.
During the early months, Jupiter and Saturn reappear and march across the sky forming a bright triangle with Sirius. As they disappear into the West, they leave the sky empty for Mars, which launches itself into a magnificent a solo performance. It crosses the evening sky in the summer, making its brightest appearance in 60,000 years.
Mars fades, but hangs around waiting for the others to join it after its magnificent solo performance. Venus, which had been skulking in the dusk, rose to clear visibility, at the end of 2003. While Saturn and Jupiter approached Mars from the East. In late march, Mercury came up to join Venus completing a clear line of the five visible planets.
Venus was at its most brilliant for seven years, and I observed it in the clearest air on Earth, 14,000 foot, Mauna Kea. The air was so clear, and Venus so bright, that Venus cast its own shadow. One of those unique, once in a lifetime experiences. Venus Shadow. At the same moment Mercury was at its farthest from the sun, affording a rare spectacle.
Throughout the summer Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and finally Jupiter all faded into the evening twilight, ending a most memorable 18 month movement.
They now move to the morning sky, preparing for a finale - another appearance of all five planets at the turn of the year. This will be their last appearance together until 2016.
After their line-up, Mercury and Venus swing behind the sun and appear in the Western evening sky in the Spring, while Saturn, followed by Jupiter, march across the evening sky from the East. Saturn greets Venus and Mercury returning from behind the sun, forming a tight little trio in June. Saturn then sinks into the twilight, while Venus says goodbye to Mercury and rises up to greet Jupiter in mid September. Jupiter continues towards the setting sun in October, while Venus continues to climb higher and brighter throughout the year. Meanwhile, Mars, shining brightly climbs up to stand sentinel over the winter sky.
The year opens with Venus sliding quickly back towards the sun. Mars leads Saturn, followed by Jupiter into the evening sky, and by Spring the three stretch a line from horizon to horizon. Venus soon reappears in the morning sky and in early March is briefly visited by a blue streak, a hitherto unknown comet, Comet Pojmanski.
Mars hangs back waiting for Saturn, and the two meet in mid-Summer. As Saturn moves on, Mercury briefly stretches towards her, but doesn't quite make it, and both fall into the twilight. Valiantly, Mercury reaches up again and this time passes Mars. Mercury stays around long enough to greet Jupiter too, as it moves into the twilight. And as both sink into the sun's glare, Venus climbs up, touching first Mars, then Mercury and Jupiter, beginning another of her majestic evening appearances.
The year opens with another surprise comet, McNaught, which turned out to be the brightest comet in fifty years.
Saturn appears in the East, striding steadily across the sky towards Venus who is climbing ever higher in the West. But there comes a point when Venus can reach no higher. She slides back gracefully towards the sun, but not forsaken. Saturn does finally catch her in a lovely twilight embrace, right at the mid-point of the year.
Now it is Jupiter's turn to march through the sky once more. dominating the evening sky through till November. At which point Mars reappears, taking over the baton which she carries into the new year.
Mars rises high through the Spring, followed by Saturn a few steps behind. In an almost repeat performance to the year before, Saturn chases Mars across the sky, finally catching him as the two disappear into the midsummer twilight.
Again Jupiter takes over. And now it is its turn to court the brilliant Venus rising in the West. In late November the two brightest planets meet in a beautiful conjunction, made all the more spectacular by the close passing of a crescent moon.
As Venus glides back towards the setting sun, Saturn begins a solitary march across the heavens, briefly greeted by Mercury at the end, who escorts her of stage. As she disappears, Jupiter takes over, performing a similar 6-month solo.
Mars had been waiting in the wings, but as the year begins enters full sky, followed by Saturn who, over the months, catches up with the red planet. In July, Venus rises up from the West to join the duo, creating a magnificent triple conjunction. All three depart the stage together at summer's end, as Jupiter steps in to complete the year with another solo pass.
As Jupiter completes its solo, Saturn appears to perform its own. Through the summer it glides alone the sky. As it exits, it passes the baton to Venus rising as the evening star to herald a most memorable arrangement. October, my first sighting of Venus above the sunset coincides with my first sighting of Jupiter rising in the East. Over the next five months the two converge towards a spectacular conjunction in March.
Two weeks before the conjunction, silver Mercury rose briefly to acknowledge them both. I watch them pass from atop Haleakala, and for the second time in my life see my Venus shadow. By now Mars has joined the play high in the East. Late April, Jupiter is disappearing into the sunset, Venus is at her highest brightest - bright enough to be visible in daylight. Mars is overhead and rising Saturn completing the arc across the sky.
As Venus bows out, Mars and Saturn begin their own pas de deux, drawing together as they move across the summer sky.
Mars and Saturn sink together into the sunset in August. For two months there are no planets in the evening sky. FInally, in December, Jupiter reappears.
Through the Spring until early summer Jupiter alone marches across the sky.
In May, Venus rises slowly from the sunset to meet Jupiter as it completes its tour. Suddenly Mercury rises to join them both. Reaching Venus just as Jupiter glides by. It is at its Zenith, as Jupiter dips into the sunset. It hovers for a day or two, then runs back past Venus into the sunset, leaving Venus to continue her stately rise. A magnificent triple conjunction.
By now Saturn has reappeared in the East. (Over the coming seven years she will gradually draw closer to Jupiter, finally meeting again at the end of 2020.) Venus reaches up towards towards Saturn, who glides across the summer sky, to meet her in mid-September.
Venus turns, her show complete, and follows Saturn into the Winter sunset.
Jupiter reappears at the beginning of the year, beginning another lonely tour across the sky through the Spring. Through the summer, Mars follows Jupiter's trail. But swifter Saturn is close behind and catches up with Mars at Summer's end. They glide together for a while, then Saturn pulls ahead and leads the way into the sunset.
Mars hovers through the end of the year, maintaining a lonely vigil low in the West, waiting for Venus, who suddenly rises up to greet Mars at year's end.
Venus begins one of her magnificent displays through the Spring. She touches Mars in mid-February. releasing him from his vigil so that he may at last sink down into the sunset.
But Venus is not alone. Jupiter has reappeared in the East and through the Spring marches up across the sky towards the rising Venus. The two meet in a beautiful close conjunction at the end of June - with the newly risen Saturn, watching adoringly from the other side of the sky. Just before Venus and Jupiter meet, Mercury rises briefly behind Venus acknowledging the coming conjunction.
The year starts uneventfully with lone Jupiter rising in the East. But a dramatic dance is about to unfold. As Jupiter rises to the mid-heavens in summer, Mars appears, closely followed by Saturn. They have a brief close encounter in Mid-April. Then Saturn drops back for a while, then in the summer starts gaining ground on Mars. By August they meet in a lovely high conjunction.
Meanwhile Venus is coming out from hiding behind the setting sun, and rises up to meet the descending Jupiter. Suddenly Mercury appears, overtaking Venus, and reaching up to Jupiter. The three come together in a lovely triple conjunction on Aug 26-27. And at the same time as the Mars-Saturn conjunction. All five visible planets in the sky at once, and in such a neat formation. Quite a rarity.
Mercury heads back towards the sun, followed closely by Jupiter, while Venus goes on up to meet Saturn as it slides down towards the Sun in late October. She continues on up to meet Mars in early 2017. But never quite makes it. Laggardly Mars hovers just a little way away, and reluctantly Venus lets go and drops back towards the sun. Altogether a magnificent display.
And is that were not enough, the June Full Moon falls on the summer solstice. The last time was 1948.