Planetary Alignments, Past and Imminent
- SOURCE : http://www.griffithobs.org/SkyAlignments.html
Planets Alignments in 2000 - Griffith Observatory
============Planetary Alignments in 2000==================
The news is out! There will be a series of planetary alignments in the
year 2000. Will the earth tilt over? No. Will tidal forces trigger
Will the polar ice caps melt? No. Will you even be able to see the
Not really. But a lot of people want to know what is going on, so the
Griffith Observatory has established this page with all the details and
A multi-media planetarium show that explores this topic in depth,
"Cosmic Catastrophe," premieres in the planetarium theater on January 5,
The following is extracted from "Cosmic Doom in 2000!" by John Mosley, a
feature article which appeared in the Planetarian, the journal of the
International Planetarium Society, March 1996.
The planets align in May, 2000, and the world will end--or so many
people will say. Anyone involved in educating the public about astronomy
will be involved. It will be the Jupiter Effect and Nostradamus all over
again, but on a global scale. These planetary alignments will be, for
many people, the most significant astronomical event of the next decade.
Doom at the End of the Millennium
We will hear from all quarters--psychics, astrologers, pyramid experts,
prophesiers of the apocalypse, and good old Nostradamus--in books, in
videos, and on TV, that civilization--or the world itself--will end at
the end of the millennium. Some will cite the planetary alignments in
May 2000, and as astronomers we will be asked to explain, defend, and
even reassure. The broadcast media has a strong sensationalist element
and may do more harm than good; at the very least they will spread cries
of doom quickly and widely. Recall the intensity of fears during
pervious similar scares when a lot of people were genuinely frightened.
The thought that the world will end at a massing of the five planets
dates back to at least 300 B.C. Despite all we've learned a lot about
the mechanics of the solar system in the last 23 centuries, ancient
superstitions remain in full health. This time a massing of the planets
accompanies a change of millennium--a double whammy for those who
believe such coincidences are turning points in a Master Plan for Human
Prophecies of chaos, whether triggered by planets or not, will be part
of the general silliness that accompanies ends of centuries. For most
people, it will be a milestone to be celebrated, not dreaded, and there
should be some pretty good parties. Hillel Schwartz in Century's End
documents the stories of past
fins de siècles and comments at length on the coming century rollover.
(Incidentally, he shows that fantastic accounts of terror throughout
Europe as the year 999 approached are relatively recent fabrications.)
What will be new this time is mass marketing. The millennium will be big
business, involving everyone from hard-core apocalyptic doomsayers to
clever entrepreneurs trying to make an honest buck. It has gone so far
that a consulting firm has been established specifically to help others
market the millennium. The broadcast media will not stand idly by as the
craziness begins and they will be glad to fan the flames.
Mixed in with the joyful celebrations and silliness will be cries of
impending doom and destruction. Ultimately we will hear everything from
predictions by fundamentalists of the fulfillment of biblical prophecies
to planetary tidal forces run amok.
What will concern us astronomers even more as the digits roll over are
predictions of doom based on the positions of the planets.
Most members of the public will get their information on planetary
alignments not from desktop computer sky simulation programs, but from
sensational books and films. The most famous planetary alignment of
recent years was promoted in the notorious book The Jupiter Effect. The
world survived this so-called alignment of 1982, but another book,
called 5/5/2000 and subtitled Ice: the Ultimate Disaster, by Richard
Noone, is on the shelves. This book was originally titled simply Ice:
the Ultimate Disaster, but was reissued with "5/5/2000" added
to the title and jacket blurb. Although the book is an unorganized mish-
mash compared to the ostensibly authoritative The Jupiter Effect, it
does make dramatic predictions that some people will find scary. Like
Gribbin and Plagemann, Noone too suggests a chain of events culminating
Noone's chain is extraordinarily shy on details about precisely how
things will happen, but the gist is that an Mercury, Venus, Mars,
Jupiter, and Saturn will align with the earth for the first time in
6,000 years, and that will cause the ice that has been building up at
the South Pole to upset the earth's axis, initiating sudden and
catastrophic floods and earthquakes. The ancient Egyptians
warned us about this 6,000 years ago (it happened to them, too; that's
why they built the Great Pyramid), and Nostradamus simply confirmed the
I found six instances in his book where Noone mentions the alignments of
May, 2000: on pages 53, 129, 207, 213, 279, and 331 (but there could be
more because, like most books of the genre, there is no index). Noone
never even hints at how the planetary alignments will cause the earth to
self-destruct, arm-waving that contrasts dramatically with the vector
calculus he quotes at depth to quantize the Great Pyramid's shape. He
is, however, certain that the interval is exactly 6,000 years, no more
and no less. To Noone, the alignment will be exact, too; he
says "for the first time in 6,000 years all the planets of our solar
system will be arrayed in practically a straight line in space" (p. 53).
I've not been able to make much sense of his book or to discover its
organization, if any. Most of the book, however, is devoted to the
"dreaded date embodied in the Great Pyramid's mathematical symbolism"
(p. 213), but it ties together otherwise unrelated topics as the Book of
Mormon, dinosaurs that lived contemporaneously with humans, Inca
fortresses, the lost continent of Mu, the Ark of the Covenant,
Velikovsky, Atlantis, and so on ad infinitum. All of his
arguments are derivative. The assertion that too much ice at the South
Pole will cause the earth to tip over dates back to Charles Hapgood who
elaborated on earlier ideas that too much ice at a pole would unbalance
The alignments seem to be a definite afterthought in a book that is
really about secrets of the Ancients. The alignments give the book its
title and dramatic cover illustration and they provide a date in the
alarmingly near future to focus on, but they are entirely incidental to
the book. The book devotes a total of less than half a page out of more
than 300 to the planets in the year 2000.
The details may not be important. What Noone and Nostradamus said will
be far less important as the year 2000 approaches than what their
followers will say. Noone is not active on the talk-show circuit and
Nostradamus is dead, but others will quote them to bolster and lend
legitimacy (!) to their own peculiar theories of doom and disaster. It
is these secondary, derivative predictions and interpretations that will
give us the most trouble.
Noone's arguments and his thick book will appeal to the new-agers for
whom all bizarre ideas are inter-related and who need nothing more than
a planetary alignment foreseen by the builders of the Great Pyramid to
raise the alarm of impending cosmic doom.
Deja Vu All Over Again
We've been through this before. As an astronomer at the Griffith
Observatory, I survived two occasions when Los Angeles was to have been
destroyed by earthquakes triggered by planetary alignments, and people
only a few years older than me remember a third. All were major media
events. Although the latter two of these were specific to Los Angeles,
or at least to California, the May 2000 events will be applied
Let's recall what happened in Los Angeles in 1962, 1982, and 1988 and
remind ourselves of what it will be like in a few short years when
history repeats itself yet again.
1962: The Planets Align
On February 4, 1962, all five naked eye planets plus the sun and moon
were massed within a circle 17° in diameter, and at the same time there
was an eclipse of the sun! Robert S. Richardson, astronomer at Griffith
Observatory, describes in the May 1962 issue of the Griffith Observer
what happened in Los Angeles:
Weeks beforehand we began getting inquiries from people wanting to
know, "What was going to happen on February 4th?" "What does it mean?"
was the next question. Then they wanted to know, "When was the last
time it happened?" This was one of those things an astronomer was
supposed to have at his finger tips.
Answering questions of this kind for hours can become quite a strain
on the nervous system
Sunday, February 4 [the crowd at the Observatory] must have been the
largest since it was opened to the public in 1935. By two o'clock the
road leading to and from the observatory was a solid mass of cars
lined up bumper-to-bumper for half a mile.
Another woman was weeping so badly it was hard to understand her. She
was practically on the verge of collapse. "I know it's silly to carry
on this way,' she gasped between sobs, 'but I can't help myself." In
talking to these 'Alarmed' individuals, one gets the impression very
strongly of an insecure personality, torn this way and that by vague
doubts and fears. When confronted by a problem, they seem incapable of
forming an independent opinion concerning it, but tend to rely on the
judgment of others. They are so highly susceptible to suggestion that
it would be very easy for anyone who has gained their confidence to
take advantage of them. the barest hint that there might be something
wrong could drive them to suicide or hysterics.
There was similar craziness around the world, especially in India.
1982: The Jupiter Effect
The last time the planets were supposed to align and trigger mass
destruction in Los Angeles was in 1982, the year of the "Jupiter
Effect." According to the tabloid Midnight, "Astronomers and scientists
are desperately worried that one of the most terrible disasters in the
history of mankind may hit the United States killing untold millions and
reducing the American West Coast to rubble ."
The public was told that "all the planets in our solar system will be in
line" and the earth "will pass daily through the energy fields."
I was not "desperately worried," but I was attentive.
The planets were not to work their magic directly on the earth, and as
seen from earth there was no alignment. It was a heliocentric alignment.
At their closest, on March 10, 1982, as seen from the sun, the planets
spanned 95°, which is more than a quarter of the sky. As seen from the
earth the naked-eye planets were spread across 130° of the sky. The
Jupiter Effect was subtle. In a circuitous sequence of events, a rare
heliocentric alignment of planets that occurs only once every 179 years
exerts a strong tidal effect on the sun, which increases solar activity,
which causes more sunspots, which propel more atomic particles
towards earth, which disturb the normal circulation of earth's
atmosphere, which causes sudden major storms, which cause abrupt changes
in the earth's rotation, which triggers a major quake along faults
(specifically the San Andreas) already subject to strain. No chain is
stronger than its weakest link, and this chain has some links that were
very weak indeed.
A salient feature of the Jupiter Effect was that it was promoted by
scientists, and this gave it extra validity. A local feature for those
of us who live in California is that the specific fault that was
supposed to fail was the San Andreas, a major fault that extends nearly
the length of our state. The authors referred repeatedly to "the next
great California earthquake," and this was even the title of one
chapter. My immediate predecessor at Griffith, Edward Upton,
recognized early what was going on, and in the January 1975 issue of the
Griffith Observer he wrote:
But The Jupiter Effect has not been written to appeal to the
scientific mind. It is written for those who are more impressed by
dramatic language than by precise reasoning it is truly a novelty to
receive it from the hand of two scientists whose training and
education, if not entirely wasted, should have taught them better. It
is difficult, indeed, to resist the suspicion that they do know better
and that The Jupiter Effect is a gigantic deception directed at the
ever-present gullibles. On page after page we find repeated the warning
that great earthquakes are going to occur in 1982 along the San
Why this one-track emphasis on impending disaster in California, as if
it were the only place on earth subject to major quakes? Why there no
similar predictions concerning Chile, Alaska, Japan, Indonesia, or a
hundred other places? Could it be because in California, better than any
other place on earth, one finds a fear of earthquakes combined with a
proven market for sensational books?
Untold millions did not die in 1982, but a lot of people were scared.
Despite the focus of the book, concern was not limited to California.
The San Diego Vista Press reported on March 10, 1982:
"We've literally had people ask, 'Should I sell my house and move
away?'" said Kevin Atkins of Gates Planetarium [in Denver, Colorado].
The institute reported 130 phone calls in five hours Monday.
One small Christian sect in the Philippines is building a maze of
padded cubicles and trying out padded suits in readiness for disasters
their leader, Casiano Nasair, predicts. And according to the Silver
City Daily Press, New Mexico, of March 8, 1982:
Boston's Charles Hayden Planetarium has been inundated with calls,
according to assistant director Walter Webb. And at New York's Hayden
Planetarium, phone lines were so busy that secretary David Ross had no
time to talk.
According to the book this planetary alignment was directed specifically
to California and little mention was made of other places. Yet it made
the national news. Predictions for catastrophes the end of the world in
2000 will be global in scope.
The last great planet-causing earthquake flap came six years ago. We at
Griffith Observatory learned about it when we received a rash of phone
calls asking, "Can you tell me when the planets are going to line up and
cause that big earthquake?" Puzzled, we asked the callers the source of
their (mis)information? It came from a 1981 movie about Nostradamus,
called The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, that had just been shown on cable TV.
As far as I could tell, it was this so-so movie suitable only for late-
night TV that brought Nostradamus into the popular eye and initiated
concern and fear over the "alignment." It's no surprise that
the modern American public receives its information on many vital
matters via day-time talk shows and late-night TV.
The Man Who Saw Tomorrow referred to an earthquake that was to have
happened in California in 1988, but it also refers specifically to more
dramatic events that are to happen at the end of the millennium and that
are to affect the entire globe, as described earlier. The video will
probably resurface again, even though many of the events dramatically
predicted in it have decidedly not come to pass as predicted. I
recommend purchasing a copy on video cassette for your own self-defense.
The Man Who Saw Tomorrow is a docudrama that warns that certain
predictions of the future are not comforting. Narrated by Orson Welles,
it tells the story of Nostradamus in a sympathetic way that cannot fail
to convince someone who is not familiar with the subject that here was a
man with supernatural powers who could indeed see the future and who
wrote his quatrains to warn future generations of troubles to come. It
is full of archival footage of horrors of the past (World War II
atrocities, for example) and scenes of disaster lifted from old science
fiction films. Because it is appears to be a documentary, many who see
it are genuinely alarmed.
Not surprisingly for a film produced by David Wolper, the movie is full
of exaggerations and outright fabrications. In one example of the
movie's manipulation of facts, a dramatic scene which is presented as a
true historical incident shows looters opening the grave of Nostradamus
during the French Revolution. To their dread and amazement, the looters
find a plaque on the body inscribed with the month and year they opened
the grave! One looter mockingly recalls a curse upon whoever disturbs
the prophet's bones--and is promptly shot dead by a stray bullet.
Narrator Welles looks you in the eye and asks you to be the judge if
this can only be coincidence. The reality is that the tomb of
Nostradamus, like so many others, was indeed looted during the
revolution, but no dated plaque was found. A local French priest created
the legend that a soldier who helped open the tomb died in battle the
next day in an effort to scare off future looters.
Following the late-night showing of the film, astrologers, psychics, and
doomsayers of all persuasions crawled out of the woodwork and added
their own spin on Nostradamus' predictions. We were assured from them
that, yes, the Master had predicted earthquakes for Los Angeles or San
Francisco for May, 1988. We were told this despite the fact that the
quatrain quoted in the movie was a fabrication created by joining two
lines of one quatrain with two lines of another (Century I, #87 atop
Century X, #67), and that the actual warning was that "hailstones would
fall larger than an egg."
I learned how tightly foreseers of the future stick together as they
clamber on their bandwagon once a prediction has caught the eyes of the
media, regardless of how bogus the initial source may be. This bodes
poorly for May 2000; a prophecy of doom has a life of its own once it
starts, and even a small flame can start a big fire.
A curious aspect of the 1988 flap was that the movie did not claim that
the planets would align. The quake would happen when the planets would
be in specific, but very ambiguous, positions ("Mars in zero"). There
was no question of tidal or other unknown forces acting on the earth; it
was pure astrology. Yet the impact was strong, and the news media ate it
up. If all this could come from a bad video that didn't even quote
Nostradamus correctly and at a time when there were no planetary
alignments, I shudder in fear of what will happen at the turn of the
In a curious coincidence, at the height of the Nostradamus scare it was
revealed to the nation that the First Lady used an astrologer to plan
Ronald Reagan's presidential calendar. (His astrologer, Joan Quigley,
boasted, "I got heavily into the relationship between the superpowers
and the ending of the Cold War." -L.A. Times, Jan. 4, 1996).
For we defenders of rationality, it was a double-whammy. We were busy.
Most news coverage was rational and balanced, but we were appalled by
some investigative-reporting programs (one of which was filmed on our
roof without our permission) that ranked with the most shameful examples
of tabloid journalism. They fanned the flames during prime time, and I
lamented that they reached more people with their nonsense in one half-
hour broadcast than I will in the planetarium theater in my entire
Interest on the part of the news media and the public peaked the day
before the supposed catastrophe, with many of the Hollywood rich and
famous arranging to be out of town "just to be safe." When nothing had
happened by the late afternoon of the fateful day, media interest
evaporated so quickly you could hear the loud POP as air rushed into the
vacuum it left behind. I stood on the Observatory steps waiting to be
interviewed about the earthquake that didn't happen and the
prediction that failed, but "that was not news" and I stood alone.
Nearly forgotten now is the new age Harmonic Convergence, a wild and
crazy New Age non-event in California and elsewhere in August, 1987.
Second generation hippies gathered on Mt. Shasta and at other galacto-
magnetic vortices while Mercury, Venus, and Mars converged near the sun.
The purpose was to establish a field of trust via a bio-electromagnetic
battery and sense-field matrix so that, among other events, the ancient
Mayans, who had departed in UFOs, would return to usher in a new age of
galactic synchronization. As far as I could tell, nothing happened other
than a crafts fair.
Planetary Alignments in 2000
In contrast to the Jupiter Effect and Nostradamus' 1988 prediction of
doom, when there were no planetary alignments, in May 2000 there is a
nice series of alignments. They were first pointed out by Jean Meeus in
1961 and they figure into Charles Berlitz' forgettable book Doomsday
1999 A.D. published in 1981.
Astrologers and other doomsayers know of these alignments, which are
already common knowledge among people who keep track of such things.
There is even a discussion board in the Astronomy section of America
Online devoted just to this topic. With sky simulation programs on
everyone's personal computer, the cat is out of the bag.
Here is a narrative description of what will happen astronomically in
The year begins with the planets dispersed over 160° of sky and all but
Mercury visible. Venus is prominent in the morning sky while Mars,
Jupiter and Saturn are in the evening sky. Mercury moves to the evening
sky and becomes visible early in February. All planets are then moving
eastward (none are in retrograde) and their spread is decreasing. On
February 28 their span has decreased to 90°.
A few days later Mercury swings back to the morning sky.The first
conjunction of many occurs when Venus passes Mercury on March 15, and
the two inner planets are 2.1° apart at their closest at 22:44 UT.
(Times here are of closest approach, not conjunction in Right Ascension
or ecliptic longitude, and are computed by the Voyager II program for
Macintosh by Carina Software. Times are accurate to within a few
minutes.) At the same time Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars span 20° in the
evening sky. These three outer planets continue to converge (Mars is
overtaking Jupiter which in turn is overtaking Saturn), and on April 6
Mars passes Jupiter (they are 1.0° apart at 6:24 UT) with Saturn 6° to
the east. This conjunction happens while Mars and Jupiter are
30° from the sun and it is easily visible. The prettiest evening sight
of the suite of planetary groupings comes at about 8 p.m. local daylight
saving time on Thursday evening, April 6, for middle latitudes in the
United States, when the thin crescent moon is near Saturn and the moon
and four planets fit within a circle about 9° in diameter.
April 6, 2000, 7 p.m. The three planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn,
plus the thin crescent moon are visible during evening twilight from
mid-latitudes. Alt-azimuth grid squares are 5° apart. All
illustrations here were created with Voyager II for the Macintosh.
A week later Mars is roughly midway between Jupiter and Saturn and the
three planets fit within a circle 5° in diameter. Mars is closest to
Saturn (2.2°) at 14:24 UT on April 15. Mars then leaves Saturn and
Jupiter behind and the three planets slowly become strung out in line.
Meanwhile, Mercury and Venus have been approaching superior conjunction
and their separation with the sun (and with the other planets) has been
On April 20 the five planets (and sun) span 39°, with Venus and Mercury
in the morning sky and Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in the evening. Weather
permitting, the five planets should be visible, although not
simultaneously, to people with binoculars and clear eastern and western
On April 28 at 14:56 UT Mercury passes 0.3° from Venus, but the two are
less than 12° from the sun. The five planets and sun now span 30°.
The moon joins the five planets a few days later, and it remains between
Venus, which is the westernmost planet, and Mars, which is the
easternmost, from 9:37 UT on May 3 until 8:08 UT on May 5 as measured in
ecliptic longitude. The moon is new at 4:12 UT on May 4. Because Venus
is moving eastward faster than Mars, the grouping of the five planets
plus moon and sun continues to compress during the time it takes the
moon to move eastward and reach the longitude of Mars. All seven
classical solar system bodies span their smallest geocentric arc in
ecliptic longitude -- 25° 53' -- at 8:08 UT on May 5. This moment is the
culmination of the celestial massings. The sun is near the center of the
massing, so all that will be visible will be Mars and the crescent moon,
both 16° east of the sun in the evening sky, and perhaps Venus, 10° west
of the sun in the morning sky.
May 5, 2000. The five classical planets plus the sun and moon span
26°, their closest separation since 1962 and their closest until 2675.
Only Venus in the morning and Mars and the crescent moon in the
evening might be visible. Ecliptic grids are 5° apart.
May 5, 2000, as seen from the sun. The five naked-eye planets span
50°. The earth is in the opposite direction. Note that Jupiter and
Saturn are nearly aligned. Ecliptic grids are 5° apart.
May 5, 2000, as seen from above. From a vantage point high above the
sun the planets do indeed look aligned. From bottom to top they are
the earth, sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. The moon, not
shown, is near new and also aligned. This is as seen from the earth.
As seen from the sun, the five planets, which in order from left to
right are Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mercury, and Venus, span
50°. The earth is in the opposite direction. As seen from far above the
sun they do indeed look aligned -- as they actually are.
After passing Mars at 8:08 UT on the 5th, the moon leaves the sun and
planets behind, but the five planets continue to converge (and to become
even less-easily visible). In sequence, Jupiter is in superior
conjunction, Mercury passes Jupiter, Mercury is in superior conjunction,
Saturn is in superior conjunction, and Venus passes Jupiter. This last
conjunction, which takes place at 10:30 UT on May 17, determines the
smallest geocentric spread in longitude of the five classical planets
(and the sun, but not the moon), which span 19° 25'. The moon is in a
kind of alignment by being 170° opposite the sun and 21 hours
before full. This is a second instant for astrologers and psychics to
focus on. All planets are too close to the sun to be seen--but we can
demonstrate what is happening in our planetarium theaters! After this
moment, Jupiter's slower eastward motion causes it to lag behind the
others and the planets begin to spread out.
A notable feature of the May 17 minimum span is that Venus and Jupiter
are separated by only 42 arcseconds! Venus almost occults Jupiter. It
would be a wonderful sight were they not less than 7° from the sun. This
close conjunction has already been compared to the 2 B.C. conjunction of
the same planets that is often identified as the Christmas Star in the
book of Matthew.
May 17, 2000. From left to right (east to west), Mars, Mercury, the
sun, Saturn, and Venus and Jupiter (which are in very close
conjunction) span a geocentric arc of 19.5°. The moon is one day
before full. Ecliptic grids are 5° apart.
Conjunctions continue as Mercury passes Mars with a minimum true angular
separation of 1.1° at 9:04 on May 19 (as determined by Voyager II). They
are 12° from the sun and possibly visible. Jupiter passes 1.1° from
Saturn at 13:20 on May 27. Venus is in superior conjunction with the sun
on June 11 (and literally behind it), by which time both Jupiter and
Saturn have become visible in the morning sky, where they rise 2° apart.
Venus passes 0.2° from Mars at 17:04 on June 21 (both are far too close
to the sun to see).
Another interesting massing (and a last chance for astrologers whose
earlier predictions of disaster were not fulfilled) comes on July 1 and
2 when, for 11 hours, the moon, sun, Mercury, Venus, and Mars fit within
a circle 8° in diameter. The massing will not be visible, of course.
Further groupings of lesser interest continue on and on ...
Every astrologer and psychic will put his own spin on these alignments.
They occur over so a wide a span of time that there should be
opportunities to link at least a few natural and political disasters to
planets date UT time true separation
Venus-Mercury March 15 22:44 2.1°
Mars-Jupiter April 6 6:24 1.0°
Mars-Saturn April 15 14:24 2.2°
Mercury-Venus April 28 14:56 0.3°
Mercury-Jupiter May 8 18:08 0.8°
Venus-Jupiter May 17 10:30 0.01°
Mercury-Mars May 19 9:04 1.1°
Jupiter-Saturn May 27 13:20 1.1°
Venus-Mars June 21 17:04 0.2°
minimum span in longitude of sun, moon, and five planets
May 5, 8:08 UT 25° 53'
minimum span in longitude of five planets (plus sun)
May 17, 10:30 UT 19° 25'
How Often Do the Planets Align?
Inevitably when discussing a planetary alignment, someone asks, "How
often does this happen?" or "When will it happen again?"
It is hard to give a short and satisfying answer if more than two
objects are involved. Of course, no series of alignments repeats
exactly, but simply saying it that way is interpreted as avoiding
answering the question. You'll be seen as obstructionist. People have
the instinctive feeling that even if a particular alignment doesn't
repeat exactly, it repeats in a general way and there must be
a way of putting a number to its rarity. This is certainly true of
eclipses (the most interesting alignments), and its true of planetary
alignments too. If the alignment is a simple conjunction of two planets,
the answer is easy. But if it's several planets massed together, perhaps
with the moon, and if they need to be in one of the "water" signs of the
zodiac, for example, the answer is not obvious.
An analogy I like to use is to compare a complex series of alignments or
a massing of planets to a baseball game. Many games end with the same
score, but no game is ever repeated--just as no alignment is ever
repeated. Another short answer, which is an over-simplification but
which might be useful when time is short, is that all nine planets will
never "line up" for the same reason you'll never flip an honest coin and
get heads a million times in a row--the solar system won't last long
enough for such an unlikely event to occur.
The Belgian astronomer Jean Meeus has looked into planetary alignments
and compact groupings, and his several publications are invaluable
resources. The information in the two sections below are taken from his
Heliocentric: All Planets (except Pluto)
In a letter-to-the-editor to Sky & Telescope (1982), Meeus published
dates when all planets excpt Pluto fit within a sector of less than 90°
as seen from the sun between the years 0 to 3000. He lists 25 dates,
which is one every 120 years, although of course they do not occur
periodically. The minimum heliocentric spread of the planets during
these 30 centuries occurred on April 11, 1128 (Julian), when the eight
planets spanned 40° (Pluto was outside the sector). The last two dates
when the eight planets spanned less than 90° were September 19, 1666
(85°) and June 9, 1817 (83°). The next two times will be May 19, 2161
(69°) and November 7, 2176 (78°). In none of these four cases is Pluto
within the sector. The last time all nine planets lay within a 90°
sector was on February 1, 949 (Julian; 80°) and the next will be on May
6, 2492 (90°).
Geocentric: Naked Eye Planets
In 1994 De Meis and Meeus published a list of 102 groupings between the
years -3101 and +2735 where the five naked-eye planets fit within a
circle 25° or less in diameter, which is an average of once every 57
years. (This expands on Meeus' earlier 1961 list which spanned the years
1000 to 2400). Of these 102 groupings, on 10 occasions the five planets
fit within a circle 10° in diameter (an average of one every 584 years).
The minimum separation of the naked eye planets within this long time
span was 4.3° on February 27, 1953 B.C. (Apparently the Chinese
calendar began with the following new moon on March 5). The last two
close groupings were on April 30, 1821 (19.7°) and February 5, 1962
(15.8°). The next two will occur on May 17, 2000 (19.5°) and September
8, 2040 (9.3°).
The De Meis and Meeus list does not note whether the sun is within or
outside the span of the five planets, but this can be checked with
desktop planetarium programs. Most groupings do include the sun and are
not observable, but the 2040 grouping, which includes the crescent moon
at no extra charge, occurs well to the east of the sun and will be
spectacular at 7:30 p.m. in the evening (mark your calendar now).
When Did This Last Happen?
The short answer to the question, "when was the last time the five
planets plus sun and moon were this close," is 1962 -- when there was
a solar eclipse at the same time!
minimum separation of 5 planets + sun + moon
event date separation
last February 5, 1962 15.8°
present May 5, 2000 25.9°
next March 20, 2675 22.6°
minimum separation of 5 planets + sun
event date separation
last February 5, 1962 15.8°
present May 17, 2000 19.5°
next April 9, 2675 18.3°
The two main groupings of multiple objects that will draw the greatest
attention are the minimum separation of all seven classical solar system
bodies on May 5 and the even smaller minimum separation of five planets
plus the moon on May 17.
However, within this time frame there are other alignments that involve
fewer objets but that are also interesting both astronomically and
astrologically. From past experience we know that astrologers feel free
to attach significance to whatever dates are available. In 1988 so many
alternative dates were proposed that, by the time May rolled around,
someone had picked almost every day of the month for the earthquake. And
as I write this, Mercury is in conjunction with Uranus, an alignment a
local astrologer finds quite important. Astrologers, psychics, and
doomsayers of all sorts will seize on the minor events of 2000 too.
The Venus-Jupiter conjunction on May 17 at 10:30 UT is extremely close.
The planets' centers are separated 42 arcseconds, or about 0.01 degree.
Both planets are full phase with apparent polar diameters of 9.8 and
30.8 arcseconds respectively (as calculated by AstroVizier), and at
closest their limbs are separated by only 22 arcseconds. It's a shame
they won't be visible!
I used Voyager II to search for close Venus-Jupiter conjunctions and
then Starry Night and AstroVizier to examine the circumstances with
greater precision. The last time Venus and Jupiter were closer than on
May 17, 2000 (separated by less than 42 arcseconds) was at 3:47 on uly
21, 1859, when their centers were 32 arcseconds apart (there was no
partial occultation). The next time will be at 12:45 on November 22,
2065, when their centers will be 16 arcseconds apart and
the northern edge of Venus passes in front of Jupiter. These values
should be correct to within a few minutes and a few arcseconds--adequate
to answer the question.
Meeus pointed out in 1988 that some astrologers will focus on the almost
simultaneous superior conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, which happen
64 hours apart. He found that since the year 1600 there have been four
occurrences (1623, 1742, 1881, and 1921) when the interval was less than
48 hours, resulting in an even closer matching. There were no major
earthquakes nor were wars started on those dates.
Circumstances of conjunctions between the planets for the period 1990 to
2020 are listed in Part One of Astronomical Tables of the Sun, Moon and
Planets by Meeus, second edition. (The first edition covers the period
1976-2005.) This invaluable reference will tell you, for example, the
dates of the last and next Mars-Saturn conjunctions before and after
Planetary Alignments and Earthquakes
Many (most?) people believe that, when the planets align, they have an
effect on the earth. People assume that somehow their gravity is focused
and magnified, increasing their tidal forces and triggering an
earthquake. To a person who doesn't understand tides (or gravity, or
science), it must be easy to imagine that this is so. During past
alignments many callers simply wanted to know about the "planetary
alignment that will cause an earthquake."
Usually the closeness of the alignment is overstated. In 1982, the year
of the "Jupiter Effect," the tabloid Midnight reported that "all the
planets in our solar system will be in line" and the earth "will pass
daily through the energy fields." The covers of the books The Jupiter
Effect and 5/5/2000 Ice: the Ultimate Disaster both show the planets
perfectly aligned. This is common imagery and is the public perception.
It is useful to make the point that generally the alignment is not so
dramatic (in 2000 it is pretty good), but regardless of how precisely
the planets line up, we can still evaluate the idea that planets cause
earthquakes. We can take two separate approaches.
First, it is supposedly gravitational tidal forces that trigger
earthquakes. We can calculate the tidal force that each planet has on
the earth, and this is shown below. The sun has 1 unit of tidal force on
the earth; the moon has a little more than twice the effect of the sun;
the other nine planets together with all their moons add only another
one five-thousandth as much. If all the planets were to align perfectly,
their gravity would raise the ocean tides by one twenty-fifth of one
millimeter. Clearly, the contribution of the planets is entirely
negligible, and it makes no difference to the earth whether they are
aligned or not.
Tidal Forces of the Sun, Moon, and Planets on the Earth
(The sun's tidal force equals 1.00)
ref: Thompson, 1981
The tidal force depends on distance and mass--but especially distance. A
book you are holding in your hands exerts a billion times as much tidal
force as the planet Mars when Mars is at its closest.
Second, we can make lists of past earthquakes and of planetary
alignments and compare them to see if there is a correlation. This is a
very simple thing to do that requires no theory and almost no knowledge-
-just pads of paper and lots of time. There are 11,000 earthquakes each
year in the Los Angeles area alone that are strong enough to be
recorded, which is more than enough to do a proper statistical sample.
One study published in Nature 13 years ago (Kilston and Knopoff) claimed
to find a weak correlation between large earthquakes on strike-slip
faults in California and daily and semi-daily tidal stresses. That
appears to have been the last word on the subject, however. From
conversations with seismologists in the preparation of this article, it
appears that the study has been either ignored or forgotten (or both).
The feeling seems to be that a very weak correlation for a certain type
of fault in a certain geographic area is not something to be excited
about, and as far as I have been able to determine there is no interest
in repeating the study.
However, the basis of the claims in The Jupiter Effect is that the tidal
forces act on the sun, not on the earth, and that changes in the sun
trigger seismic activity on the earth. This certainly didn't work in
1982, and it probably hasn't worked in the past.
In an attempt to correlate Chinese earthquakes with heliocentric
planetary alignments since 1000 A.D. ("Chinese Records on the
Correlation of Heliocentric Planetary Alignments and Earthquake
Activities," W.-H. Ip, Icarus, 29, p. 435-6, 1976) Ip finds that, of the
11 earthquakes with an intensity greater than 8 since 1000 A.D., none
coincide with a heliocentric planetary alignment. Ip concludes that "It
appears that such an arrangement of planetary orbital positions has no
effect on the triggering of earthquakes."
Ip also summarizes a 1975 study by Yu Shen that has not been translated
from Chinese into English. Shen attempted to find a correlation between
38 centuries of seismic activity in northern China and the 179-year
heliocentric alignment of the planets much touted by Gribbin and
Plagemann prior to 1982. Since 780 B.C. there have been 15 or 16
heliocentric alignments and 125 earthquakes in northern China with
intensities greater than 6 on the Richter scale, but only one of these
earthquakes (in 1624) coincided with a heliocentric alignment. Again the
conclusion is that "heliocentric planetary alignments have nothing to do
with the triggering of earthquakes, at least in Northern China."
Anyone can look for a correlation between tides and earthquakes and the
first person to find such a correlation would be famous. Yet no one has
yet found a convincing relationship--probably because there isn't one.
Earthquakes are caused by motions within the earth. We would like to
predict them for obvious reasons, but an appeal to the planets or to
astrology won't help.
If we are taking about gravitational and tidal forces of the planets,
the situation is clear. Unfortunately, some members of our audience will
dismiss the entire effort.
In a posting to the 2000 Planets Align Discussion Board of America
Online (Dec. 14, 1994), "M" says: "What does 'seeing' the planets from
earth have to do with it? What we will see is not the planets
themselves, perhaps, but the intersection of the great Cosmic forces
they represent." Sigh.
Selected Planetary Alignments Web Sites
Bad Astronomy: Alignments Cause Earthquakes
Planetary Conjunctions by Brian Monson
Planetary Groupings and the Millennium: Why Panic? By Jean Meeus
Dr. Brian Monson made a small QuickTime Conjunction Movie of the
planets' motions. He posted it on his web server at
It shows a QuickTime animation of the motion of the planets during the
time period surrounding 5/5/2000. If you are using a Windows based
computer you will need Apple's QuickTime for Windows package installed
before you can view it. You can download it for free from
Apple. It was created using StarryNight for PowerMacintosh, v. 2.1.3,
from Sienna Software. The movie shows the position of the planets at
0600 UTC everyday from 4/6/2000 to 5/26/2000. The time between frames is
1 day. The horizontal green line across the frame represents the
ecliptic (the plane of the earth's orbit around the sun ). The red
reference circle is 20º in diameter.
The information above was extracted from"Cosmic Doom in 2000!" by John
Mosley, which appeared in the Planetarian, the journal of the
International Planetarium Society, March 1996.
The article was also reprinted with modifications in
Skeptic, vol. 4 #4, 1996.
Skeptic is the quarterly publication of Southern California's Skeptics
Society. Please contact the Skeptic Society to purchase back issues.
A discussion of tidal forces is at Truman Collins' May 2000
Alignments and Destructive Potential page.
"Cosmic Doom in 2000!," John Mosley, Planetarian, pp 6-23, March 1996.
"The Millennium is Coming!," John Mosley, Skeptic, vol. 4 #4, 1996
(reprint of Planetarian article).
"5-5-2000," Wade E. Allen, Planetarian, pp. 15-6, Sept. 1994.
"Compact Planetary Groupings," Jean Meeus, Sky & Telescope, pp. 320-21,
"Doomsday: The May 2000 Prediction," Jean Meeus, Skeptical Inquirer, pp.
290-92, Spring 1988.
"Great Earthquake Hoax," Edward Upton, Griffith Observer, pp 14-18, Jan.
1975 (reprinted pp. 2-8, Jan. 1982).
"Planetary quadrants and minimum sectors, 0 to 3000," Jean Meeus, Sky &
Telescope, pp. 5-6, January 1982.
"Lunar-solar periodicities of large earthquakes in southern California,"
S. Kilston and L. Knopoff, Nature 303, pp. 21-25, July 1983.
Mask of Nostradamus, James Randi, Scribners, 1990.
"On the Trail of the Jupiter Effect," L. G. Thompson, Sky & Telescope,
p. 220, Sept. 1981.
"Quintuple planetary groupings -- Rarity, historical events and popular
beliefs," Salvo De Meis & Jean Meeus, Journal of the British
Astronomical Association, 104, #6, pp. 293-297, December 1994.
"Science in the bear-pit," Tony Jones, New Scientist, pp. 70-71, Oct. 7,
"The 'End of the World' at the Griffith Observatory," Robert S.
Richardson, Griffith Observer, pp. 62-5, May 1962.
Also see Planetary Groupings and the Millennium: Why Panic? By Jean
Meeus, from Sky & Telescope magazine.
An especially good general treatment is at the National Solar
Observatory/Sacramento Peak Planetary Alignments page.
This article may be linked to freely, but may not be copied, printed
(except for private use), or reproduced as a web page without prior
permission from John Mosley.