May 22, 2013 7:23 pm

A good week for looking up… if the weather cooperates!

Mercury, Venus, Jupiter 45 minutes past sunset May 24th.

Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and more, 45 minutes past sunset on May 24th.
© 2013, Sky & Telescope

The tightest alignment of Mercury, Venus and Jupiter that we can see with our own eyes until 2026! The return of Manhattanhenge! This weekend and next week could be an excellent time for looking up… if the weather cooperates.

Mercury, Venus and Jupiter

When it comes to the planetary alignment, Sky & Telescope magazine  has an excellent article and timetable here, which I encourage everyone to check out. They have viewing instructions and images showing what you’ll see every night about 45 minutes after sunset, from May 24 through May 31.

According to S&T, the three planets will appear so close together that you can cover them with your thumb, and view all three at the same time using a pair of binoculars. Of course, when it comes to space, appearances are deceiving. To quote Sky & Telescope, “Although the three planets may look close together, they’re not. During the last week of May, Mercury is about 9 light-minutes from Earth (105 million miles), Venus is farther at 14 light-minutes (150 million miles), and Jupiter is 51 light-minutes from us (565 million miles). The fainter star Elnath or Beta (β) Tauri, which appears with them in the scene, is more than a million times farther in the background at a distance of 130 light-years.”

Manhattanhenge, a photo by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Sunset looking down 34th Street. One of two days when the sunset is exactly aligned with the grid of streets in Manhattan.
Copyright © 2001, Neil deGrasse Tyson


Next week, on May 28th and 29th, it’s off to Manhattan for the biannual solar event known as Manhattanhenge, a term coined by none other than our host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is also the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Twice a year, the setting Sun aligns precisely with the streets of Manhattan, as Neil describes it, “creating a radiant glow of light across Manhattan’s brick and steel canyons, simultaneously illuminating both the north and south sides of every cross street of the borough’s grid. A rare and beautiful sight.”

On Tuesday, May 28th, you’ll get to see the half Sun on the street grid at 8:16 pm EDT. On Wednesday, May 29th, you’ll see the full Sun, at 8:15 pm EDT. (By the way, Neil says he prefers the half Sun for photographs.) The process repeats in reverse in July, when the full Sun is visible on Friday, July 12 at 8:23 pm EDT and the half Sun the day after, on Saturday, July 13 at 8:24 pm EDT.

For a great description and the best cross streets to witness the event, head on over to the Manhattanhenge page on the American Museum of Natural History’s website.

So there you have it. Not only is it Memorial Day Weekend, which means many of you actually get a break from work, but if the weather plays along (and given its track record for recent celestial happenings, that’s a mighty big if), this could be a great week to keep looking up. Speaking of a break from work, for those of you who subscribe to the newsletter, just a heads up that there won’t be an issue tomorrow.

That’s it for now. Have a great Memorial Day Weekend! Keep Looking Up!

— Jeffrey Simons

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