Look Up! A Rare Planetary Alignment, Visible from Earth

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William Radcliffe / Science Faction / Corbis

Planet Mars

Good thing President Obama released his long-form birth certificate. Now we can all go back to worrying about an even greater threat than the possibility that the President is a Kenyan double agent: the much buzzed-about reports that the world is going to end in 2012.

It was the Mayans — or maybe the Romans or the Greeks or the Sumerians — who called the shot this time, evidently on a day Nostradamus phoned in sick. Apparently, a rogue planet named Nibiru (which frankly sounds more like a new Honda than a new world) is headed our way, with a cosmic crack-up set for next year. No matter who's behind the current prediction, there are enough people ready to spread and believe in this kind of end-of-the-world hooey that you have to wonder if the earth isn't starting to take things personally.

Regrettably, the Nibiru yarn got a boost in recent days with the very real announcement that an alignment of several of the very real planets will be taking place this month, offering a fleeting treat for stargazers willing to get up before sunrise and take a look. Even this genuine cosmic phenomenon, however, may be a bit less than it appears.

Beginning today and lasting for a few weeks, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Mars will be visible in the early morning sky, aligned roughly along the ecliptic — or the path the sun travels throughout the day. Uranus and Neptune, much fainter but there all the same, should be visible through binoculars. What gives the end-of-the-worlders shivers is that just such a configuration is supposed to occur on Dec. 21, 2012, and contribute in some unspecified way to the demolition of the planet. But what makes that especially nonsensical — apart from the fact that it's, you know, nonsense — is that astronomers say no remotely similar alignment will occur next year.

"Nothing bad will happen to the earth in 2012," NASA explains patiently — if wearily — on its website. "Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012."

What's more, even this month's apparent planetary lineup is as much illusion as fact. In the same way a group of people scattered randomly across the room can appear to be aligned depending on your angle of sight, so too can planets that seem tidily arranged from one point of view turn out to be nothing of the kind when you look at them another way. The same question of perspective is true for our familiar constellations. View Orion from Earth, and he's a hunter; view him from the other side of the galaxy, and he's a frog or a tree or just a jumble of stars.

That's not to say there aren't truly meaningful planetary alignments. Indeed, there was a whopper of one in the late 1970s, which was accurately forecast by an engineer named Jim Burke at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1966. Burke used no sorcery to make his prediction, but rather the hard science of orbital mechanics — calculating the speed and position of all of the planets, projecting forward, and discovering that Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were just 13 years away from forming a once-every-176-years conga line. NASA took stupendous advantage of that knowledge, building and launching the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which embarked on a four-planet grand tour, sending back a portfolio pictures and a trove of data that have never been matched.

Ironically, at the end of April, even as the Internet continued to buzz with apocalyptic silliness, NASA convened a press conference to announce that the Voyagers, which are still sending back a small trickle of data after 33 years in space, are preparing to pass through what's known as the solar system's heliosheath. This is the region, up to 9 billion miles (14.5 billion km) away, in which the final breeze of charged particles streaming from the sun at last gives way to the true emptiness of interstellar space.

The sky show the planets have planned for this month is a reminder of the aesthetic elegance the solar system can sometimes offer. The triumph of the Voyagers is a reminder of the no less extraordinary things science can achieve — provided we're able to ignore the distractions.