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Scientists: No doomsday in store when planets align Friday

planets aligned

May 2, 2000
Web posted at: 3:21 p.m. EST (1921 GMT)

(CNN) -- An unusual alignment this week of eight major bodies in the solar system, including Earth, is no cause for panic, NASA scientists said.

Our planet joined the moon, sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in an approximate line for several days beginning Wednesday. The grouping came closest to forming a straight line on Friday at 4:08 a.m. EDT.

Some prophets of doom expect the worst: cataclysmic floods, earthquakes, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions triggered by gravitational forces from Earth's neighbors.

A few apocalyptic numerologists even link the event to the "powerful astrological pattern" of 5/5/2000 or the biblical beast sign of 666.

Next similar alignment: 2438

Roughly speaking, the inner six planets are aligned every 50 to a 100 years or so, according to David R. Williams of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

But the configuration of these eight bodies is more of a rarity. They lined up in a somewhat similar fashion in 1962 and won't do so again until 2438, according to Don Yeomans and Steve Edberg of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


NASA animation of planetary alignments
2,584 K / 34.28 sec. / 240x180
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Don't expect scientists to cash in their retirement accounts this week. Tidal expert Donald W. Olson and physics graduate student Thomas E. Lytle performed a series of astronomical calculations, comparing the gravitational effects of the 2000 event to dozens of similar ones over the past centuries.

Since the sun and the Earth survived planetary alignments in the past, "we can be fairly confident that the world as we know it will not end during May 2000," they concluded in a Sky and Telescope article.

The row of celestial bodies will extend 26 degrees, much more spread out than 38 years ago when they varied by only 17 degrees, according to Myles Standish of the Pasadena, California-based JPL.

Sun's glare will spoil show

Standish agreed that the tidal effects of the planets upon the Earth will be negligible.

"If all the planets were in a straight line, it would raise the tide only 1/600 hundreds of an inch, so the planets have virtually no effect, he said.

A baseball held at arm's length would have a tidal effect millions of times stronger on a person than the planet Mars at its closest, Yeomans and Edberg said.

The planetary alignment won't provide much of a visual spectacle, either. The Earth and moon will be on the opposite side of the sun from the other aligned planets. The sun's glare will hide the other planets, making the event as much of a no-show for skywatchers as it is for doomwatchers.

"It will be like trying to look at a search light with little fireflies around it," Standish said.

Only the moon, Mars and Venus may be far enough from the sun and bright enough to be seen, with Venus appearing in the eastern dawn sky and the moon and Mars in the western sky just after sunset.

gallery image

When the sun, moon, and five brightest planets form an unusually compact grouping on May 5, there will not be much to see directly because the sun's glare will hide most of the planets from view. Click arrow to see how the alignment would look from space. (Graphics Copyright 2000 Sky Publishing Corp.)

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April 14, 2000
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NASA: May 5 -- Doomsday, or just Friday?
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Could Planetary Alignment cause Earthquakes?

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