Ask the Astronomer
Astronomer William Georgevich replies:
With the approaching Millennium there has been renewed interest in planetary alignments. Here at Windowpane Observatory we get hundreds of calls every time a news item about a cosmic alignment hits the media. Some of these alignments are very difficult for scientists to talk about since they only exist in the minds of the people who invented them.
The most popular of these in recent times was the "Harmonic Convergence". Based on one man's interpretation of the Mayan Calendar, he predicted an alignment of planets in the late 1980's. On that day in August not one single planet was close to another, yet astronomers like myself were repeatedly asked where to look in the sky.
Are there any real alignments? Absolutely. At the beginning of December 1997, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn could easily be seen arching across the sky like a string of pearls. This kind alignment is known as a conjunction. A conjunction is where 2 or more celestial objects are very close to another.
When 2 objects are actually so close that one covers the other, astronomers call this an occultation. An occultation is the most spectacular alignment because the 2 objects are directly in front of each other. Such an incredible event took place twice in 1997. Did you hear about it? Was it in the papers? Unless you read about it in an astronomy column, probably not. In September and December 1997, after midnight, our own Moon passed directly in front of Saturn. For about 1 hour the Moon and Saturn were almost perfectly aligned until the rings and ball of Saturn popped out on the other side of the Moon.