Solar observatory films planet parade
GREENBELT, Maryland (CNN) -- A solar observatory with a great celestial view is recording the march of planets as they line up on the other side of the sun. The planetary alignment will remain invisible to viewers on Earth, but not to the SOHO satellite, which is snapping pictures and making movies before the main event.
The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft has already focused its imager on Saturn, Jupiter and Mercury, which along with Venus and Mars will line up at their closet convergence next week.
The line-up of planets has fascinated amateur astronomers around the world this month. Last week eight major bodies in the solar system -- the five brightest planets, the Earth, sun and moon -- were all aligned within 26 degrees.
The upcoming planetary convergence involves fewer planets, but they will be grouped much closer, within 15 degrees of each other. The alignment will reach its climax on May 17, said scientists with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
SOHO will squeeze in four planets in one camera viewfinder on May 15, according to NASA. Venus will be heading into the picture while Mercury will be on its way out. Jupiter and Saturn will be in the picture too, but Mars will be out of view on the left.
People sometimes attribute special significance to rare celestial events. For example, some prophets of doom predicted the end of the world for the planetary alignment last week. Astronomers, however, calculate that such events have infinitesimally small effects on Earth's gravity.
Earth observers won't be able to see the converging planets, which similar to last week will disappear in the glare of the sun. SOHO can because it blocks out direct rays from the solar surface with its Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph. LASCO usually watches for outbursts from the sun's atmosphere. It also sees stars beyond the sun and has discovered many comets.
SOHO is a project of international cooperation between the European Space Agency and NASA. For the latest SOHO images and QuickTime movies, go to: http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/hotshots
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