Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Is the planetary alignment picture a hoax?

Planetary alignment over Giza Pyramids Over the past two days, the picture on the right went viral across the Internet, especially on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. The image claims that on 3rd December, 2012, Mercury, Venus and Saturn will be aligned in the night sky, with each of the three planets showing exactly above the tip of one of the three pyramids of Giza. I kept getting several messages from friends asking if this is true or just another hoax image.

A little research online gives a straight answer. While the image itself is very cool, it is not entirely true. The image was created and published online by Charles Marcello on World Mysteries Blog. Marcello used the free software Stellarium to create the image, and claims that this event is very rare and happens every 2,737 years. The blog post hints at a possible spiritual significance to this phenomenon, and, with the year 2012 being the end of the Mayan calender, there is much interest in these events.

However,  Phil Plait over at the Bad Astronomy blog on Discover Magazine points out the many problems with this picture and why it is more or less a hoax.

There will be an event on 3rd December, 2012 and it will probably be quite special. However, according to Plait, the photoshopped image here has more than a few problems. To start with, the angle the photo is taken from is wrong. The picture is taken from the southwest facing the pyramids. However, in order to see the planet alignment, you must be northwest of the pyramids. From the angle the picture is taken from, the planets would be behind the viewer.

Meanwhile, the three planets will not align in such a straight line. The line will be a bit skewed, according to a simulation that Plait using the  SkySafari planetarium programme. They also won’t appear in a nearly horizontal line as in the image, but at a much steeper angle apparently.

Croman / Illinois Sky Watch

The Illinois Sky Watch has produced another image, again using Stellarium, that shows what the planets might realistically look like on the 3rd December when they align. The image can be see on the right.

Finally, an important question to ask is: will the alignment of the planets be visible to sky-gazers? On a normal day in Cairo, it is very tricky to see too many planets and/or stars due to the pollution. While the pollution is not so bad out in the desert, the pyramids are too close to some of the city’s busy centres with air and light pollution.

Being based in Cairo, I will probably head to the pyramids before dawn on 3rd December and I don’t think I want to miss this event. I’m excited to get the chance to witness this so close to home. However, I’m not getting my hopes up too much that it will look like that first amazing image. Either way, I am sure it will be something special to watch – if the smog over the city permits that is.


Is anyone planning to go look for the planetary alignment above the pyramids on 3rd December?


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    Daniel Wagner said:

    As far as I remember from my observations of the sky as a youth, Mercury is actually very hard to see, except when it crosses the disc of the Sun. Thus even the Illinois Sky Watch may be a bit misleading.
    I’ll be watching the sky in December, nevertheless (even though we have no pyramids in Rehovot).
    Prof. Daniel Wagner, Weizmann Institute of Science.

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    Tygarjas Bigstyck said:

    Hi! I was thinking of making a very long journey to be at the pyramids for the alignment. I was wondering if there will be people I might be able to meet up with for a viewing. I was also wondering about the political climate. Might I be able to email you directly about my questions? Thank you!

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    taqwa abdallah said:

    Hi, I was wondering if you will be going out to view the planetary alignment and where the best place to see it from would be? I am hoping to gather a small group to go and see it.

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    Mildadrea Starr said:

    With all do respect I’d like to point out a few things. First of all the date for this has already past, did anyone happen to be in Egypt around the time and see the night sky? What did you see? Secondly, common sense (as all these authors seem to point out) should have already indicated that the picture in and of itself was a dramatic representation of what the night sky over the pyramids could look like during this time. That all being said, if you refer to the “Illinois Sky Watch” diagram provided above, the stars are in fact quite aligned with each pyramid depicted in the exaggerated picture. It seems to me that the person who released this picture wasn’t as far off base as the author of these articles are suggesting. As far as the length of time between alignments, I can not comment, but in general I don’t see any reason to spend so much time trying to debunk something that clearly wasn’t meant to be taken as anything more than a representation of what may have been.