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Five planets gather for rare event

Jan 1, 2003

An impressive, rare show of five planets clustered in the western sky will have stargazers craning their necks for the months of April and May. Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus and Mercury (accompanied closely by the first-magnitude star Aldebaran, one of the 57 navigational stars, by the way) are now stacked nearly on top of each other and will be viewable on clear evenings to the west. The cluster will remain in formation for our viewing pleasure for most of the month of May, drawing closest on May 14.

Reports by the Associated Press and Sky & Telescope Magazine stated that the rare clustering of planets has not happened since 1940 and will not occur again until 2040. (Such planet bunches occur about every 20 years, according to the reports, but they are not always visible.) While astronomers have insisted there is no heavenly significance to the event -- "It's just a pretty coincidence," J. Kelly Beatty, executive editor of Sky & Telescope was reported to have said -- but such opportunities do exist for a reason: for us to get our collective eyes off our navels and directed at what Slocum called "the clock aloft made by the Great Architect."