Three planets above Egyptian pyramids on December 3, 2012?
Tonight for December 3, 2012
Venus, Saturn and Mercury are all in the predawn sky in early December 2012, but not exactly in the way that a widely circulated image on the Internet shows them. Instead, on December 3, 2012, they’ll look like the chart at right, as seen from the site of the three pyramids in the Giza Necropolis bordering what is now El Giza, Egypt. Will Mercury, Venus and Saturn be close together in the predawn sky in early December? Yes. Does this configuration happen only every 2,737 years? Well, we’re not sure what’s meant by that. The planets appear near each other all the time – constantly – as seen from Earth’s vantage point, as they and we orbit the sun. Mercury, Venus and Saturn were together in the sky last in 2005.
Will Mercury, Venus and Saturn appear as this photo shows, over the Egyptian pyramids? No. Not sure how this planet-pyramid story started circulating, but it’s possible someone noticed (or searched for) a true sky event in December 2012 (peak month of 2012 doomsday hype) and then manufactured the false images below. The images were made before the event happened, so we know the images below are photoshopped illustrations.
What’s happening with the planets Venus, Mercury and Saturn in December 2012? Nothing unusual. Venus is shining before dawn. It has been shining before dawn since June 2012. Remember the cool Venus transit in early June 2012? That’s when Venus crossed from the evening to the morning sky. As the innermost planet, Mercury always appears either before dawn or after sunset. It shifts from place to place half a dozen times each earthly year. So if Venus is up before dawn, Mercury is bound to be near it at times. Saturn, too, returns to the predawn sky at least once every year. Why? Because Earth orbits the sun once a year. So our own motion in orbit places Saturn on a yearly cycle in our sky.
What’s cool about what’s happening on December 3, 2012 is that these three planets will be equidistant from each other. Will they be exactly above three Egyptian pyramids as shown in the illustrations above? No. But someone standing in just the right spot near these pyramids should be able to get the planets to appear above the pyramids in a picturesque way. For sure, if you stand in a particular spot near the pyramids – facing them, and facing the eastern sky before dawn – you should be able to see the planets and the pyramids together. That would be a nice thing to see! If anyone gets a photo of this, please drop us a note via the Contact button at the top of this page, or post it directly to EarthSky’s Facebook page.
What’s puzzling about this Mercury-Venus-Saturn-pyramid story is that there was a much better display of two planets earlier this year. In March 2012, the two brightest planets – Venus and Jupiter – had a dazzling conjunction in the evening sky. Someone standing in just the right spot in March could have captured a great photo of Venus and Jupiter above the pyramids of Giza. So why did the perpetrators of the photoshopped images above choose Mercury-Venus-Saturn instead to portray, instead of Venus and Jupiter? Not sure. Venus and Jupiter were much more spectacular than Mercury-Venus-Saturn will be!
Why do these planets appear in a line in the predawn sky right now? The planets in our solar system all orbit the sun in a nearly flat plane. So – whenever we see planets near each other in our sky – they always appear in a graceful line across our sky. This line across our sky is the same one traveled by the sun in the course of a day. It’s the same path traveled by the moon. Why? Because most objects in our solar system orbit in this flat plane of the solar system. Of course, this pathway across our sky has a special name. It’s called the ecliptic. Read more about the ecliptic here.
These widely circulating images of Mercury, Venus and Saturn above the Egyptian pyramids reminds us of the false image of India at the 2012 Diwali festival. People love to take real events or images and manufacture something exaggerated from them. Why? We don’t know.
The good news for skywatchers is that Saturn and Venus are now making it easy for us to find Mercury, which, as the innermost planet of the solar system, moves from place to place in the sky so often that you might be likely to miss it. To see these planets, find an unobstructed eastern horizon and get up about 90 minutes before sunrise. Look low in the eastern sky for dazzling Venus, the brightest star-like light in the morning sky. Saturn shines a short hop above Venus and Mercury a short hop below. A line from Saturn through Venus points out Mercury’s place on or near the horizon. If you can’t see Mercury with the eye alone, try binoculars.
It rarely gets any easier than this for seeing Mercury in the Northern Hemisphere. Mercury reaches its greatest elongation west of the sun on Tuesday, December 4. That means this often hard-to-see world is climbing above the southeast horizon a maximum time before sunrise. Given a level and unobstructed horizon, Mercury rises about one and three-quarter hours before the sun at mid-northern latitudes, and about an hour before sunup at middle latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere.
Mercury shines as brilliantly as a first-magnitude star. The innermost planet isn’t hard to see because it’s dim. It’s because – as seen from Earth – this world stays perpetually close to the sun, so it’s often lost in the twilight glare. But with Mercury swinging to its farthest point west of the sun, before sunrise tomorrow is about as good as it gets for catching Mercury in the morning sky.
Our chart at top shows the sky scene for about one hour before sunrise at North American mid-northern latitudes. But it’d be better to get up sooner if you can, using Saturn and Venus to catch this elusive world just as darkness gives way to dawn. Look first for Venus and then Saturn up above. If you don’t see Mercury on line with Saturn and Venus, wait a little while as Mercury may still be below the horizon.
Don’t fret if you miss Mercury tomorrow. Keep using Saturn and Venus to locate Mercury near the horizon, for the innermost planet will reign as a morning “star” for another two to three weeks!
Bottom line: Will Venus, Saturn and Mercury appear above Egyptian pyramids in early December 2012, as a widely circulated image on the Internet suggests? Well, it’s true they’re all together in the eastern, predawn sky. That’s a fairly common event. But the images being circulated – showing them above the pyramids – are an exaggeration of a true sky event. The good news: these planets will be beautiful in early December! If you watch the night sky on a regular basis, you know it conveys a profound beauty and order every day of the year. And if you’re lucky enough to observe them from the Egyptian pyramids, hey, we envy you! Contact us to learn where to send us your photo, or post your photo directly to EarthSky’s Facebook page!