giza aligned
A viral photo purporting to depict how Mercury, Venus and Saturn will line up later this year -- but the image paints an inaccurate picture, according to scientists. Bad Astronomy

Science, superstition and rumor have come to an unusual alignment in a viral picture that purports to show Mercury, Venus and Saturn aligned in a diagonal above three pyramids in Giza, Egypt.

But as astronomer Phil Plait explains in a blog post for Discover Magazine, while there is going to be a relatively close conjunction of the three planets on December 3, they likely won't be arranged so neatly above the tops of the pyramids. By mapping the location of the planets with a computer program, Plait found that the three planets will not be in a completely straight line, and will actually be arranged in a much steeper angle, closer to vertical.

Commenters on Plait's post also noted that in the real-life version of the alignment later this year, Venus will be much brighter than Mercury or Saturn.

A blogger at Illinois SkyWatch that goes by the handle Croman concurred that the viral photo shouldn't be taken as gospel truth.

"Although a very cool picture indeed, it's not realistic," Croman wrote on Monday.

The alignment of three celestial objects - also known as a syzygy (pronounced like "sizz-a-gee") - isn't an uncommon occurrence. Earth gets to see it all the time in the form of lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, and even the recent transit of Venus.

In May 2011, Earthlings got an even bigger show when Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Uranus and Neptune all appeared to line up roughly along the ecliptic - the path the sun seems to take through the sky.

Many a soothsayer has forecast doom because of a projected planetary alignment. "The Jupiter Effect," a 1974 book by John Gribbin and Stephen Plageman, predicted that a celestial event in 1982, when all nine planets (back when Pluto was still in the club) would be on the same side of the Sun and relatively aligned, would wreak havoc on Earth. Gribbin and Plageman claimed that the alignment would affect the solar winds coming off of the sun and somehow trigger extreme events on Earth, including earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault. Needless to say, the world did not end in 1982.

With apocalypse fever peaking because the Mayan Long Count calendar is about to essentially turn over a new page this December, it's no surprise that a conjunction of rare astronomical phenomena and mysticism can go viral.

Plait allowed that "Someone putting themself at just the right place to the northwest at just the right time might be able to get the three planets aligned with the three pyramids. That would be very pretty, and I'd love to see it personally! But," he added, "I wouldn't assign any spiritual significance to it beyond that."