Night Sky Offers Three-for-One Deal

If you’ve any interest in seeing some of the other planets in our solar system, this coming week is pretty much a fiesta.

The biggest event is with Jupiter, which will be particularly visible for three reasons:

  • At a mere 368 million miles away, it will be the closest to Earth it has been since 1963, and won’t be as close again for another 12 years. (For that reason, it’s likely to be visible to the naked eye for most of the month.)
  • Tonight also marks a Jupiter opposition, meaning Earth will lie directly between Jupiter and the Sun, something that happens every 398.9 days.
  • The planet’s South Equatorial belt, made up of brown clouds, is currently hidden under white ammonia clouds. That means more sunlight reflects off Jupiter, making it appear roughly four percent brighter than usual.

If you want to spot the planet, it’ll be to the east at dusk, overhead at midnight and setting in the west at dawn. It should appear as the second-brightest object in the night sky right after the Moon.

It’s not just Jupiter that’s going to be easier to see, though. Uranus is relatively close to Earth in terms of its own orbit path and, while it normally needs a telescope to see, those with binoculars may be able to spot it this week. It should be easier to find than usual as it will be within one degree of Jupiter and will appear as a green disc.

That’s not enough? Well, Mercury — which is often hard to spot because it’s so close to the Sun — will be at its twice-yearly high-point in the sky and thus relatively easy to see around half an hour before sunrise each morning this week. Look to where the sun normally rises and Mercury should be about 10 degrees above the horizon.

And to cap things off, there’ll be a full moon this Wednesday night/Thursday morning.

There are plenty of mobile device apps that allow you hold the screen in the air and see a display of various planets and constellations in the relevant direction so that you can match them up to what you see in the sky. For those of you with iPhone devices, I recommend the GoSkyWatch App, which works particularly beautifully on the large screen of the iPad.