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Rare Dec.3 planet alignment over Egyptian pyramids? Well, sort of

It was only 1 degree above zero this morning, but at least the wind had died down. Venus and Saturn made a very attractive couple out my east-facing window. After donning at least 5 lbs. of clothing and boots, I stepped outside in the...

It was only 1 degree above zero this morning, but at least the wind had died down. Venus and Saturn made a very attractive couple out my east-facing window. After donning at least 5 lbs. of clothing and boots, I stepped outside in the crunchy snow to have a look. Through the telescope Venus shown pure white, making fainter Saturn appear even yellower than usual. If you missed it, take a look at the pair tomorrow an hour to an hour and a half before sunrise.

A reader recently posted a photo and asked me to comment about its accuracy. You may have seen this picture circulating on the Internet showing a near-perfect alignment of Mercury, Saturn and Venus over the three major Pyramids of Giza not far from Cairo, Egypt on Monday morning Dec. 3. Along with the image the claim is made that this alignment occurs only once every 2,737 years.

There are several inaccuracies in the picture you should know about.

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First, let's take the alignment itself. While it's true the three planets will be nearly equally spaced across a 14-degree swath of sky next Monday, they'll appear at a much steeper angle from Cairo than the photo/illustration shows. And they won't queue up in a perfectly straight array either -- notice that the "line" sags at Venus.

There's also a little problem with the illustration's perspective. After consulting a map , it was easy to determine the photo shows the pyramids as you face north. From this perspective, the smallest pyramid (Menkaure) lies to the left and tallest (Khufu) on the right. Unfortunately no planets are visible from this angle, because they're all to the photographer's back in the opposite quarter of sky. Whoops!

For a view that's much closer to how the actual alignment will appear, I've taken the liberty of flipping the image left-right and adding in the correct positions of the planets as seen by an observer near Cairo, Egypt using the star-charting software Stellarium . Please note that flipping was done for illustration purposes only.

For a completely accurate portrayal of the scene during the alignment, we'd need to walk over to the other side of the pyramids and re-shoot the picture facing southeast. From that vantage point, you'd see something much closer to the scene above.

As for a lineup like this occurring every 2,737 years, well, alignments happen all the time including those involving three bright planets. While this exact configuration may be rare, the alignment itself is not. That's not to say that the event isn't worthwhile to watch. Hey, I'd be happy to see three planets above the Pyramids of Giza, but better and brighter alignments occur all the time, like the similarly-spaced dawn trio of Mercury, Venus and Jupiter last August.

Whether you're standing in front of pyramids or watching from your apartment lawn, I hope you'll be able to watch the trio as they meet, greet and go their separate ways in the coming days.

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