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Opinion: Five planets end their merry dance and align in the night sky

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For the second time this year, the five brightest planets can be seen at the same time. You can catch them by looking towards the western sky after sunset. The planets will form a line rising up from the horizon.

Mercury and Venus are low to the west, with bright Jupiter shining just above. Higher up in the northwestern sky is Saturn, and completing the set of five is the red planet Mars, high overhead.

Tonight, a beautiful crescent Moon sits just to the right of Jupiter. Keep watching the planets night after night and you can track the progression of the Moon.

As the Moon zips around Earth each month, its apparent motion in the sky is much faster than the more leisurely motion of the planets in their orbits around the Sun.

After sunset around Australia, the five bright planets can be seen in the western sky this week

By Monday, October 15, the Moon will have moved higher in the sky to sit near Saturn, and a few days later, on October 18, the Moon will partner with Mars.

That will also be a perfect evening to see the planets, as Venus and Mercury will be sitting side by side. Of all the five planets, Mercury is the faintest and therefore hardest to see, so having bright Venus as a signpost to Mercury is always an advantage.

In about a week's time, Venus, which has been the bright evening star for most of this year, will move into the glare of the Sun and out of the night sky.

Five planets, two groups

The planets have been doing a merry dance in the night sky over the past few months.

Back in July, they also came together in the evening sky, but on that occasion they were stretched right across the sky. Mercury and Venus could be found in the west, while Jupiter, Saturn and Mars were rising in the east.

As Mercury and Venus are the inner planets, orbiting closer to the Sun than Earth does, we only ever see these two low to the west after sunset, or low to the east before sunrise. They are the planets either following or leading the Sun.

In contrast, the outer planets of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can drift right across the sky, which is exactly what they have been doing since July. The trio has moved from east to west, and now they join Mercury and Venus to put on the five-planet show.

There's more in store

It may seem like a common occurrence, since the five planets have come together again in the space of just a few months. But it's only possible because Jupiter and Saturn are currently on the same side of the Sun and therefore near each other, relatively speaking.

The five planets have come together twice this year and twice in 2016, but before that there was a decade when it just wasn't possible. The two gas giants were too far apart.

External Link: Youtube planets Watch the planets come together

As Jupiter and Saturn pair up in the sky, it's only a matter of time before the other planets fall into the right configuration to bring them all together.

The next time this occurs will be in July 2020, but it will be harder to see compared to this week. The planets will be stretched across the sky rather than all clustered together in the west as they are right now.

So it's still special to spot the five planets coming together. There's great satisfaction in being able to tick off all five planets in a single viewing.

Up for a challenge?

Not only are the five easy-to-see planets visible in the evening sky, but they are joined by Uranus and Neptune to complete the planetary set.

Voyager 2 flew by Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989

These two ice giants that orbit beyond Saturn are modern-day planets. They were not known in ancient times because their discovery needed the aid of a telescope and an understanding of gravity to know how the Solar System works.

But while they may not be seen with the naked eye, Uranus is low in the east at sunset and Neptune is higher up, about midway to Mars.

Practised observers, viewing the sky from a dark country site, have been able to see Uranus with the naked eye by knowing exactly where to look. Through binoculars, Uranus appears like a faint star but a good telescope will show its slightly bluish disc.

It is best to wait until later in the evening, when Uranus has risen higher, to try to observe it. But now is an ideal time, as the planet is approaching opposition on October 24, when it will be at its best.

Neptune is about the same size as Uranus but much further away, making it harder to see. Even with a modest telescope it appears as a bluish star, while the right observing conditions and a high-quality telescope are needed to reveal Neptune's disc.

Lastly, and not to be left out, even the dwarf planet Pluto joins the crowd. It's much too small and distant to be seen but currently sits about midway between Saturn and Mars.

Even with a high-quality telescope Pluto only ever appears as a faint star-like object, and it will be a challenge for most (myself included) to find it in its current position among all the stars near the bright Milky Way.

If you are up for the challenge, a free astronomy program such as Stellarium is ideal to help locate the planets. But it's just as rewarding to enjoy the five bright planets, observed since ancient times, briefly coming together in the western sky.

Tanya Hill is an honorary fellow of the University of Melbourne and senior Curator of astronomy at Museums Victoria, is a friend of The Conversation, where this article first appeared.

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Italexit looming? Majority of Italians would vote to leave EU as immigration tops agenda

Italy has turned out to be more Euroskeptic than previously imagined after a new survey revealed tha..

Italy has turned out to be more Euroskeptic than previously imagined after a new survey revealed that a majority of Italians want to see their country crashing out of the 28-member bloc.

According to an opinion poll commissioned by Brussels Eurobarometer, only 44 percent of Italians would vote to remain in the EU, compared to the member states average of 66 percent.

The figure is lower even than Britain, where a majority (53 percent) would today vote Remain if they had another EU referendum, while 35 percent would vote Leave. Britain announced that it was withdrawing from the bloc in 2016 after 51 percent of Britons voted for Brexit.

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Italy was also the only country in the bloc where a majority (45 percent to 43 percent) thought the nation hadnt benefited from its membership of the EU, Euronews reports.

The findings contrast with those published in June following an Ipsos poll commissioned by Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, which found that 55 percent would still vote to remain in the bloc, despite declining faith in the EU.

Commenting on the findings, EU Parliament President Antonio Tajani called on the bloc to strengthen efforts to convince member states of the importance of remaining an EU member.

“We must double the efforts to prove that the union knows how to give really effective answers to the main problems of Europeans, such as immigration, security and unemployment,” Italian newspaper La Repubblica quotes him as saying.

READ MORE: Italys deputy PM predicts political earthquake for European Union (more…)

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Ancient graffiti shows weve been wrong about Pompeii doomsday date all along

The idle scrawlings of an over-indulgent Roman builder may have just rewritten the history books reg..

The idle scrawlings of an over-indulgent Roman builder may have just rewritten the history books regarding the date that Mount Vesuvius obliterated the city of Pompeii in 79AD.

Recently discovered graffiti at the site has shifted the timeline of when disaster struck the Roman city, killing all of its roughly 1,000 residents and preserving many of them in volcanic ash.

Graffiti of the phrase “XVI K Nov in [d]ulsit pro masumis esurit [ions],” which roughly translates as “He over-indulged in immodest food,” was found written on the wall of a house that was apparently undergoing renovation at the time of the eruption.

“XVI K Nov” indicates the 16th day before the first of November, or October 17, contradicting the widely held belief that Vesuvius erupted earlier in the year, sometime in August, based on correspondence between Pliny the Younger and historian Tacitus 25 years after the disaster.

“Being charcoal, fragile and evanescent, which could not last long over time, it is more than likely that it is October 79 AD, a week before the great catastrophe that, according to this hypothesis, occurred on 24 October,” archaeologists at the site wrote in a statement.

“Today, with much humility, perhaps we will rewrite the history books because we date the eruption to the second half of October,” said Italys Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli, as quoted by The Independent.

The graffiti isnt actually the first discovery to cast doubt on Plinys claims. Archaeologists previously found out-of-season produce like calcified fruits on tree branches, preserved in the ash, such as pomegranates, walnuts and wine which suggest that Pompeii wasnt obliterated until the Autumn.

READ MORE: Pompeii unveiled: Jaw-dropping drone footage shows extent of citys excavation

The well-preserved remains of Pompeians also provided another clue as their tunics were far too heavy for August, indicating that temperatures had cooled by the time disaster struck. Many braziers, used for heating, were discovered strewn around the city, indicating there may have been a chill in the air at the time of the catastrophic eruption.

This latest discovery indicates that yesterday, 1,939 years ago, a bored builder left a mundane scrawl about overindulging on junk food a week before their entire city was destroyed. This might put modern tweets and instagram posts in perspective, but probably not. (more…)

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China plans to launch artificial moon bright enough to replace streetlights by 2020

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China is reportedly in the process of creating an "artificial moon" that would be bright enough to replace the streetlights in the south-western city of Chengdu by 2020.

Key points:

  • Chinese scientists plan to install three artificial moons by 2022
  • The illuminated satellite is designed to complement the moon at night
  • The artificial moon could save hundreds of million of dollars a year in electricity costs

The illuminated satellite is said to be eight times brighter than the real moon, according to state media People's Daily, and forms part of the country's growing ambitions in space.

Chinese scientists plan to send three artificial moons into space in the next four years, and the moons — made from reflective material like a mirror — are expected to orbit at 500 kilometres above the Earth and light up an area with a diameter of 10 to 80 kilometres.

Wu Chunfeng, chairman of Chengdu Aerospace Science and Technology Microelectronics System Research Institute Corporation which developed the project, said the illuminating satellite would provide a "dusk-like glow".

"The satellites' brightness and service time are both adjustable, and the accuracy of the lighting can be controlled within tens of metres," Mr Wu told the state media agency earlier today.

Mr Wu added the three artificial moons would operate alternately in order to significantly reduce infrastructural electricity consumption, especially during winter.

The illuminated satellite is designed to complement the moon at night.

'Who paid for it and what is the purpose?'

A cityscape in China at night.

Mr Wu said lighting from the artificial moon covering 50 square kilometres in Chengdu could save about 1.2 billion yuan ($240 million) in electricity costs every year. (more…)

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