Weekend Diversion: Watching the Planets Go By

“I think it’s one of the scars in our culture that we have too high an opinion of ourselves. We align ourselves with the angels instead of the higher primates.” –Angela Carter


When I’m getting clear nights, sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of them, and just go and look outside; the allure of the sky is too much. It reminds me of a Sufjan Stevens song,

He Woke Me Up Again.
During the winters in Portland, that’s — to put it mildly — a rare occurrence. But this morning, something almost made up for it. I came across the best Flash Solar System app I’ve ever seen over at dynamicdiagrams.com.

Screenshots all mine, taken from playing with the app.

You can run it forwards or backwards, show or hide the phases of the Moon, or — as a neat trick — switch to a Tychonian, or Earth-centered, view of our Solar System, which allows you to trace out the apparent paths of the planets as seen from Earth!

Hello, Mars’ retrograde motion!

Another neat thing? I thought it would be fun to look for planetary alignments. After all, people have been claiming that all sorts of bizarre things will happen on December 21st, 2012. Let’s just skip to that date!

And as you can see, it’s just another day in the life of our Solar System.

But I couldn’t just say “the planets don’t align” and be satisfied. I had to go and play around until I found a time where an unusual number of the planets actually do align.

And here it is: August 24th, 2507! The full Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune all appear within just a couple of degrees of one another in the night sky. If I had gotten Saturn in there as well, that would have been the best alignment possible! (Because you can never have Venus or Mercury align with the full Moon.)

This one was even worth switching to a Tychonian view.

Can any of you find out how far ahead you’d have to go to get all the outer planets, including Saturn, to line up with the full Moon? Can any of you find a better alignment of more planets than this, perhaps even occurring within our lifetimes?

In any case, whether you have fun playing around with this app or not, hope you have a spectacular weekend!