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Published on Sep 24, 2010
All the planets appear to periodically switch direction as they cross the sky. Though all stars and planets appear to move from east to west on a nightly basis in response to the rotation of Earth, the outer planets generally drift slowly eastward relative to the stars. This motion is normal for the planets, and so is considered direct motion. However, since Earth completes its orbit in a shorter period of time than the planets outside its orbit, we periodically overtake them, like a faster car on a multi-lane highway. When this occurs, the planet we are passing will first appear to stop its eastward drift, and then drift back toward the west. Then, as Earth swings past the planet in its orbit, it appears to resume its normal motion west to east. Inner planets Venus and Mercury appear to move in retrograde in a similar mechanism, though their retrograde cycles are also tied to their conjunctions with the Sun.