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Astronomy Answers
Conjunctions

Once in a while there are rumors about upcoming conjunctions of "all" planets, which
some people expect to have great consequences on Earth. For example, there was
some (unwarranted) panic about the conjunction of some planets in May 2000. This
essay explains about conjunctions of planets and other celestial bodies, and that those
have no measurable influence on Earth, except for the tides that the Sun and Moon
raise.
Some questions that are answered here are:

What is a conjunction of celestial bodies?


What is the meaning of a conjunction?
How can you measure the closeness of a conjunction?
What conjunctions have been and are coming?
How close together can the planets get in the sky?
Where are the planets now in the sky?

What is a conjunction of celestial bodies?

There is a conjunction of celestial bodies if those bodies are (temporarily) close


together in the sky. The picture (taken by the author on 12 January 2001 with a digital
camera) shows a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter is the brightest "star" just
right of center, and Saturn is in the lower right-hand corner. The small group of stars
to the upper right of Jupiter are the Pleiades, and the brightest star at the left-hand side
is Aldebaran. The two planets are about 7 degrees apart.
How close together must the celestial bodies be to be in conjunction? That depends on
who you ask. If you think it is only a "real" conjunction if two planets are less than
10 apart, but your friend is satisfied already with 20, then your friend will see more
and longer lasting conjunctions than you will.
If there are more than two celestial bodies involved, then you must decide when all of
them are in conjunction. Is that when they all fit within a circle of a certain diameter?
Or when the distance between each pair of successive planets (from left to right) is
less than a limit value? Or do you use still another measure?
It is clear that the meaning of the word "conjunction" is not very precise. By adjusting
your definition you can find few, or instead many conjunctions.

What does a conjunction mean?


Only one conjunction in the sky has noticeable influence on Earth, and that is the
conjunction of the Sun and the Moon. Such a conjunction happens whenever it is New
Moon, and then the tidal forces of the Sun and Moon add up and we have spring tide
with on average a larger difference between high and low tide than usual.
The distances and masses of the planets are such that they have no measurable tidal
influence on Earth. This is clear from the following table, which lists the maximum
tides due to the planets and the Sun, compared to the tides due to the Moon. The

strength of the tide due to a planet or other body increases when the mass of the body
increases, but decreases rapidly (as the third power) when the distance of the body
increases. The tides due to the Moon are more important than the tides due to the Sun
because the much smaller distance of the Sun outweighs the much greater mass of the
Sun.
Name
Moon
Sun
Person
Venus
Jupiter
Mars
Mercury
Saturn
Uranus
Neptune
Pluto

Mass
Distance Tides
0.0123 0.00257
1
332946
1
0.46
70 kg
1 km
0.000 054
0.815
0.28
0.000 051
318
4.20
0.000 0059
0.107
0.52
0.000 0011
0.0553
0.62
0.000 000 32
95.2
8.53
0.000 000 21
14.5
18.18
0.000 000 0033
17.2
29.05
0.000 000 000 97
0.00256
29 0.000 000 000 000 14

The column "Name" lists the name of the (celestial) body. The column "Mass"
displays the mass; for the planets, Sun, and Moon these are compared to the mass of
the Earth. The column "Distance" shows the typical least distance from the Earth; for
the planets, Sun, and Moon these are measured in Astronomical Units. The column
"Tides" provides the magnitude of the tides due to that body when it is at the indicated
distance, compared to the tides due to the Moon. Usually, the planet is further away
than the minimum distance listed in the table, so usually the tides due to the planets
are even smaller than those listed in the table.
It follows from the table that the tides on Earth due to the Sun are about half as strong
as the tides due to the Moon, and that the tides due to all other planets combined are at
their greatest still some 15,000 times smaller than the tides due to the Moon. If the
difference between high and low tides due to the Moon is 1.5 m (3 ft) somewhere,
then the difference due to the Sun is about 0.7 m (1.5 ft), and the difference due to all
other planets combined is at most about 0.1 mm (1/250th of an inch): so small that it
cannot even be measured.
The table also lists the tides due to a person of 70 kg (155 lb) at 1 km (0.6 mi)
distance: those tides are even larger than the tides due to any planet! And every time
that the distance of that person is divided in two, the tides increase eightfold. The tidal
forces due to a person at about 40 m (120 ft) is comparable to the tidal forces due to
the Moon. The distribution of all people, cars, buildings, and other heavy bodies
within about 1 km (or 1 mi) from you has more influence on you than the
configuration of the planets.
Of the four fundamental forces in the Universe, only gravity (and the associated tidal
forces) is effective at great distances. If the tidal forces of the planets are negligible on
Earth, then the other fundamental forces due to the planets are even more negligible
on Earth. In short, conjunctions of planets sometimes provide pretty sights in the sky,
but are otherwise of no importance.

How can you measure the closeness of a conjunction?


There is no clear border between having a conjunction and not having a conjunction,
so it is more useful to use a measure that indicates how close the conjunction is at any
moment. With such a measure, you can also effectively compare different
conjunctions.
An obvious measure for the closeness of a conjunction of planets is the diameter of
the smallest circle that encloses all of the planets, but that circle can usually only be
found after a tedious search, and does not depend on the distribution of the planets
within the circle.
A better measure for calculating is what I call the conjunction spread. The calculation
of the conjunction spread is fairly easy and requires no searching, and this measure
changes whenever any one planet's location changes.
You calculate the conjunction spread as follows: Determine for each planet that is
included the vector of length 1 that points from Earth to that planet. Call the length of
the average of all of those vectors r. The conjunction spread w in degrees is then equal
to
(Eq. 1) w = sqrt(-26262.45log(r))
with "sqrt" the square root, and "log" the natural logarithm. For planets distributed
randomly across the ecliptic, with standard deviation s in the ecliptical longitude, w
equals twice s.

What conjunctions have been and are coming?


Mercury - Saturn
I've calculated the conjunction spread (as seen from Earth) for the planets Mercury
through Saturn, which can be seen with the unaided eye, for a period of three million
days between 4713 BC and AD 8977. To calculate the positions of the planets, I used
the VSOP model of Bretagnon and Francou, as shortened by Meeus. The conjunction
spread during this period shows periodic behavior with main periods of 399, 378, and
781 days, corresponding to the synodical periods of the Earth with Jupiter, Saturn,
and Mars.
The next table shows for a few values of the conjunction spread during which fraction
of time the conjunction spread of Mercury through Saturn (as seen from Earth) is less
than or equal to that value.
spread ()
10.5 19.1 34.5 53.9 67.2 121.8
fraction 1/10,000 1/1000 1/100 1/20 1/10 1/2

For example, the conjunction spread is smaller than 10.5 during only one ten
thousandth of the time, and the conjunction spread is less than 121.8 during half of
the time (and greater than that during the other half of the time).
The next diagram also shows during which fraction of the time the conjunction spread
of Mercury - Saturn is less than certain values.

The conjunction spread w is shown along the horizontal axis, measured in degrees.
The vertical axis measures the chance (1 = everything) that the conjunction spread at a
randomly selected moment is not more than the value displayed along the horizontal
axis. For example, if you go up straight from the 10 on the horizontal axis until you
hit the solid line and then go left until you hit the edge of the graph, then you end up
at about 0.0001, which means that the part of the time during which the conjunction
spread is 10 or less is equal to about 0.0001 or 0.01% or one part in ten thousand.
This diagram is a so-called double logarithmic plot. Short and longer dashes are
indicated Along the horizontal and vertical axes. Each next longer dash represents a
value that is ten times (an order of magnitude) greater than the previous one, as the
associated numbers show. To get the values of the short dashes you should multiply
the value of the next left or lower longer dash with 2, 3, 4 through 9. Then comes
another longer dash which represents 10 times as much as the previous longer dash.
The first couple of values associated with the longer and short dashes starting at the 1
in the lower left-hand corner of the diagram are: 1 (long), 2 (short), 3 through 9
(short), then 10 (long), 20 (short), 30 through 90 (in steps of 10), then 100 (long), 200
(short), and so on.
The dashes line shows the results of an approximation formula, equal to
(Eq. 2) P(<w) = 1.310(-8)w(3.5)

The above diagram shows the conjunction spread for the years 1999 through 2004.
There was a close conjunction during a few weeks around 11 May 2000. The
conjunction spread then dropped to 15.4, which means that the planets were spread
over about 15 degrees in the sky then. If we call it a conjunction every time that the
conjunction spread reaches a minimum (and so starts going up again), then the
investigated period of 13689 years contains 109 conjunctions at least as close as that
of May 2000, so such a conjunction happens on average about 8 times per 1000 years
(without a clear period of repetition).
The next reasonably close conjunction occurred in May 2002, with a conjunction
spread of 24. Conjunctions that are as close or closer than that one occur about 30
times per 1000 years during the investigated period (without a clear period of
repetition).

In the above figure you can see how much time there is, on average, between two
successive conjunctions (local minimums in the conjunction spread) that are closer
than a selected value. For example, a conjunction with a conjunction spread of at most
10 occurs on average once per 375 years, and a conjunction spread of at most 30
happens on average once every 15 years. The correspondence between the
conjunction spread w and the average time interval t is reasonably approximatd by
(Eq. 3) w = 75(t - 0.35)(-0.34)
Below is a table with information about the top 30 of closest conjunctions (with the
smallest conjunction spreads) of Mercury through Saturn during the period 4713 BC AD 8977:
JD
217906
290537
602440
725682
1008145
1334770
1371471
1653935
1668670
1704588
1842598
1980562
2154505
2277747

a
4116
3917
3063
2726
1952
1058
958
184
144
46
332
710
1186
1524

m
8
6
5
10
2
5
11
3
7
11
10
6
9
2

d w
6 8.8
14 9.2
24 9.0
24 7.8
26 3.0
28 5.1
20 9.3
25 6.6
28 7.8
29 8.4
5 7.2
27 5.1
19 6.9
19 9.1

r
22
27
24
15
2
5
28
7
14
19
10
4
8
25

c
+12
13
+6
+7
27
+24
+5
29
4
18
13
+20
+4
+6

2466406
2800292
3032071
3112194
3206003
3220730
3532626
3605235
3670619
3829811
3866518
4178415
4512306
4584137
4671494
4736879

2040
2954
3589
3808
4065
4105
4959
5158
5337
5773
5874
6728
7642
7838
8078
8257

9
11
6
10
8
12
11
9
9
7
1
1
3
11
1
1

9
3
6
19
21
17
26
13
18
26
25
6
5
4
6
13

7.5
8.4
8.3
7.8
8.9
8.4
7.3
8.6
9.3
7.9
2.7
3.0
9.1
5.2
7.2
9.4

12
18
17
13
23
20
11
21
29
16
1
3
26
6
9
30

+24
+1
20
+22
24
5
+19
+8
+31
+11
7
+15
10
15
21
+0

The column marked "JD" shows the Julian day number. The column "a" (annum)
contains the number of the year in astronomical reckoning (which recognizes a year 0;
year 2 corresponds to 3 BC). The columns "m" and "d" list the month number
(January = 1, and so on) and the day number. The dates are given in the Julian
calendar for years up to AD 1582, and in the Gregorian calendar for later years. The
column marked "w" lists the smallest conjunction spread for the conjunction (in
degrees), and column "r" the rank of the conjunction in this list (number 1 is the
closest). The column marked "c" shows the location of the center of the group of
planets in the sky, relative to the Sun (in degrees). A positive number for "c" means
that (most of) the planets are East of the Sun and therefore visible in the evening. A
negative number means that (most of) the planets are West of the Sun and therefore
visible in the morning (before sunrise).
The narrowest conjunction of Mercury through Saturn during the investigated period
will occur in January AD 5874, when the conjunction spread will be only 2.7. The
narrowest so far (since the beginning of the period) occurred in February 1953 BC,
when the conjunction spread was 3.0. The next future conjunction from the top 30 of
the investigated period comes in September 2040, when the conjunction spread will
be 7.7. The last conjunction that was closer than that occurred around 25 June 710.
The last top 30 conjunction happened around 19 february 1524, when the conjunction
spread was 9.1.
The conjunction of May 2000 happened too close to the Sun to be well visible, with
some planets close and East of the Sun, and the others close and West of the Sun. In
that respect, the conjunction of May 2002 was better, and the conjunction of
September 2040 willl be better, with the planets on average 29 and 24 East of the
Sun (and so visible in the evening).
Here is a table similar to the previous one, but showing the top-30 of the period from
1 January 1000 through 1 January 3000.

JD

m d w

2089088
2118557
2125795
2154505
2190393
2277747
2292478
2299725
2314457
2328437
2386276
2437702
2451676
2466406
2473594
2473649
2488385
2560214
2560947
2574943
2611639
2626353
2640335
2698166
2712900
2734875
2748869
2749606
2771584
2800292

1007
1088
1108
1186
1284
1524
1564
1584
1624
1662
1821
1962
2000
2040
2060
2060
2100
2297
2299
2337
2438
2478
2516
2675
2715
2775
2814
2816
2876
2954

8
4
2
9
12
2
6
5
8
12
4
2
5
9
5
7
11
7
7
11
4
8
11
3
7
9
1
1
3
11

13
18
11
19
21
19
19
2
32
11
21
7
12
9
15
9
13
12
15
9
29
11
22
25
28
26
18
25
28
3

14.6
17.3
13.8
6.9
13.1
9.1
13.7
14.6
10.3
17.2
13.2
14.7
15.1
7.5
19.4
17.6
12.5
10.2
17.3
16.6
14.2
11.1
16.6
12.2
14.8
15.8
14.7
16.1
19.3
8.4

15 +1
26 +28
13 24
1 +4
10 +11
4 +6
12 +32
16 30
6 5
25 9
11 17
18 4
20 +1
2 +24
30 +9
28 29
9 15
5 23
27 +7
24 3
14 15
7 +16
23 +13
8 +11
19 +33
21 +0
17 14
22 +13
29 26
3 +1

Venus - Saturn
Mercury is a bit difficult to see from Earth, because it is never far from the Sun and
does not get particularly bright. The four other planets that are visible to the unaided
eye, Venus - Saturn, have their closest conjunction in the investigated period around 8
January 6728 (2.4). The next top-30 conjunction of these planets occurs around 4
February 2378 (2.4), and the most recent one from the top 30 occurred around 6 June
1564 (4.2). During the conjunction of September 2040 the spread is 5.9, but that one
is not in the top-30.

Mercury - Neptune
The seven planets Mercury - Neptune have their closest conjunction (in the
investigated period) around 28 October 7838 (16.3). The next top-30 conjunction of
these planets occurs around 21 March 2673 (25.1), and the most recent one was
around 2qq January 1665 (28.4). It is clear that the more planets are included in the

conjunction, the wider most of them are. With these seven planets the closest
conjunction has a spread of 16.3, whereas with the four planets mentioned before the
smallest spread is only 2.4.

Mercury - Pluto
The orbital periods (around the Sun) of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto are 84, 165, and
248 years. Formulas for accurate calculation of the position of Pluto are available to
me for only a few centuries around 2000, so I cannot easily include Pluto in the
investigation of the standard period of over 13000 years. It appears, however, that
Pluto is caught in a 3:2 orbital resonance with Neptune, such that each two orbits that
Pluto completes around the Sun are on average exactly as long as three orbits of
Neptune. This means that Neptune and Pluto return to approximately the same relative
positions every 496 years.
My (rough) calculations for one such period show that Pluto and Neptune never get
closer to each other in the sky than about 11 (the Redshift 3 planetarium program
yielded 8.9 as the smallest separation), and that the next time for this to happen is in
September 2383 (and about every 496 years after that, because of the orbital
resonance). Comparison with the top-30 conjunctions of Mercury - Neptune shows
that a close Neptune-Pluto conjunction always occurs 20 to 25 years after a fairly
narrow conjunction of Mercury through Neptune. (This happens mostly because the
orbital period of Uranus fits 496 years almost a whole number of times.) During such
a Mercury - Neptune conjunction, Neptune and Pluto are about 28 - 34 apart, which
is comparable to the conjunction spread of Mercury - Neptune during that period.
Three of the top-30 conjunctions of Mercury - Neptune may have an accompanying
Neptune - Pluto conjunction: those of 1099 BC, AD 969, and AD 5455.
It appears, then, that there is some sort of conjunction of all planets about once every
500 years, but that the conjunction spread is at least about 30 (and probably often a
lot more).

How close together can the planets get?


In movies (such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider from 2001) they sometimes show
conjunctions of all (or at least many) planets where these planets line up exactly, or at
least appear so close together in the sky that you can see them all as big disks close
together through a powerful telescope, but in reality such an alignment never happens.
We saw earlier that the smallest conjunction spread of Mercury - Saturn (as seen from
Earth) between 4713 BC and AD 3501 is 3.0, which is about 6 times the apparent
size of the Moon, and 200 times as large as the apparent diameter of Jupiter in the sky.

The planets follow fixed orbits around the Sun, and cannot appear just anywhere in
the sky. The above diagram shows the orbits of all planets on 1 January (in ecliptical
coordinates) in the sky. The location of the Sun is indicated by the small square. The
planets cannot appear in other places in the sky on that date.

By shifting the planets freely along their orbits we can find the closest conjunction
that is possible in principle at any given day of the year. The above diagram shows the
results of a search for the closest possible conjunctions. The numbers along the
horizontal axis show the beginning of the corresponding months; for example, 2 = the

beginning of February. The vertical axis shows the smallest conjunction spread that I
found, measured in degrees. For each planet, the orbit was taken from the orbital
period that started on 1 January 2000. (The results for planetary orbits from 1 January
3000 are virtually the same: the standard deviation of the difference is only 0.002, and
probably mostly due to the search algorithm.)
The smallest possible conjunction spreads (of Mercury - Saturn) is never greater than
1.21 (as is approached on 23 May and 26 November), and is never smaller than 0.30
(as is approached on 13 March near ecliptical coordinates 325, 1 and elongation
29 east, and on 3 September near ecliptical coordinates 145, +1 and elongation 18
east). These closest possible conjunctions always occur at least 6 and at most 29
from the Sun. If such conjunctions happen between about 10 December and 19
February or between about 9 June and 15 August, then they happen east of the Sun (so
they are visible after sunset), and otherwise west of the Sun (so they are visible before
sunrise).
The best visible of the closest conjunctions of Mercury through Saturn would happen
near a 13 March at 29 east of the Sun, with a conjunction spread of 0.3. The planets
would then appear in the sky strung out along a line with a length of about 0.4, which
is only slightly less than the apparent diameter of the Moon, but is still 40 times
greater than the apparent diameter of Jupiter, which would then appear biggest of the
planets. So, even in the most favorable case (which has not occurred during the last
6500 years, and will not occur during the coming 6500 years, either) the planets are
still far apart, compared to their apparent sizes.

Where are the planets now in the sky?


Through the Planet Positions Page you can find diagrams of the positions of the
planets relative to the Sun, as seen from Earth, for the years 2000 through 2019. The
diagrams below show the positions of the planets Mercury through Neptune for the
years 2000 through 2003 and for 2040 and 2041, relative to the Sun. Find the desired
time of the year on the horizontal axis, and then go straight up until you cross the line
of the planet of interest. Then go straight to the left to find the associated time on the
vertical axis. That number is the time difference between the planet and the Sun,
measured in hours: the planet is due South that many hours earlier (for a negative
number) or later (for a positive number) than the Sun, and the rising and setting of the
planet are also approximately that much sooner or later than those of the Sun.
If a planet is in the top part of the diagram, then it is visible after sunset. If the planet
is in the bottom part of the diagram, then it is visible before sunrise. If the planet is
close to the upper or lower edge of the diagram, then it is visible (almost) all night,
and hence in opposition. If the planet crosses the center horizontal line (the location of
the Sun), then the planet is in conjunction with the Sun. If the trajectories of two
planets cross in the diagram, then those planets are in conjunction with each other. If a
number of planets are close together in the diagram, then they are all in conjunction
with each other.
For example, midway through the year 2000, Mercury lags the Sun by about 2 hours,
and Mars and Venus are in conjunction with the Sun. Jupiter and Saturn are close

together during all of 2000, and are in opposition towards the end of 2000. Around
May 2000 (near 2000.4 on the horizontal axis) Mercury and Saturn are all reasonably
close together (in conjunction), but Uranus and Neptune do not participate. Midway
through 2001, Mars, Uranus and Neptune are in opposition, Jupiter and Saturn are in
conjunction with the Sun, and Venus is the morning star. The conjunctions of Mercury
through Saturn around May 2002 and around September 2040 in the evening sky are
also visible, and again Uranus and Neptune do not participate.

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Last updated: 2004-2-7
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