Jupiter's Jumped In!
The king of the planets of our solar system has entered our late autumn Butler night sky and will continue to dominate the early evening heavens through next March.
In early November, Earth and Jupiter reached their closest approach to each other. Back then, Jupiter was a little over 370 million miles away, but it's still plenty close this week at 375 million miles.
Its equatorial diameter is about 88,000 miles, dwarfing our Earth's 7,900 miles. If Jupiter was a hollow sphere, you could fill it with over a thousand Earths!
Toward the end of evening twilight, Jupiter resembles a bright star rising in the low eastern sky. It's available in our heavens all night as it takes a long arc across the celestial dome through the night.
Jupiter is still close to what astronomers call opposition, which means the Earth is lined up between the sun and Jupiter. Because of that, Jupiter and the sun are at opposite ends of the sky, and that's where the term opposition originates.
Like a full moon, Jupiter rises at sunset and sets at sunrise.
Jupiter is a wonderful telescope target, but if possible, wait until it rises well above the horizon to view it, after 10 p.m. or later.
When you look at Jupiter or anything else in your telescope, the higher the object is, the better. When Jupiter is higher in the heavens, you'll have a better chance of a clear image in your scope because Jupiter's light doesn't have to pierce through as much of Earth's blurring atmosphere as it does near the horizon.
Another thing that helps when viewing anything through your telescope is to start with a low-magnification eyepiece.
The wide field of view makes it easier to find Jupiter with your telescope. Then work your way up to a higher magnification. You will reach a point of limiting higher magnification where the image becomes too blurry or muddy. That's completely normal, though. There's nothing wrong with your telescope.
Remember also that not all nights are the same for telescope viewing. Even if the skies are clear, high winds in the upper and lower atmosphere can diminish what you see and how much magnification you can obtain clearly. This is referred to as "bad seeing" conditions. If Jupiter doesn't come in very clearly one night, try it again the next night.
One other thing - it's always a good idea to look through your telescope at Jupiter or any other object for a continuous, extended time. Try to keep your eye plugged into the eyepiece for at least 10 minutes at a stretch.
That will give you more time to get used to the different light levels in the eyepiece and allow you to see more detail.
Jupiter is a huge ball of hydrogen and helium gas like our sun, but much smaller! When you get Jupiter in the eyepiece of your telescope as it's rising in the east, you'll see at least some of its parallel cloud bands that will be oriented diagonally on the disk of the enormous planet.
Even the smallest telescopes can usually pick up two dark cloud bands on either side of Jupiter's equator. But since Jupiter is so close this month, you might see more of them. You may even see some faint color in the bands.
The clouds are mostly ammonia and methane compounds. They swirl around Jupiter at speeds of hundreds of miles an hour and contain eddies and storms within them. The biggest of Jupiter's storms is the famous Red Spot, bigger than even our Earth.
No matter how the seeing conditions are, you can easily see up to four of Jupiter's largest moons. They look like little stars in a line on either side of the planet, depending on where they are in their orbits. You often can't see all four moons at the same time because one or more may be behind Jupiter or masked in front of it.
You can easily spot them with even the smallest of scopes or a pair of binoculars. Jupiter is so close to Earth right now that some eagle-eyed folks can see the moons with their naked eyes. See if you can spot a very faint and very short "tail" on Jupiter. That's a challenge!!!
Celestial Happening this week: The moon will perform with Saturn, the other bright planet in our evening sky, although not nearly as bright as Jupiter. This Sunday evening the near first quarter moon will be poised just to the lower right of Saturn.
On Monday evening the fatter first quarter (half) moon will be perched to the upper left of the ringed wonder of our solar system.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of "Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations," published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Contact him at email@example.com.