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Posts Tagged ‘planet opposition’

Rare Proximity of Jupiter to Earth

September 21, 2010 7 comments

I’m something of an amateur star-gazer. I regularly look up at the night sky in wonderment, pondering the vastness of the universe and just how little we know about it. Looking at the stars is constant confirmation that there’s an ‘out there’. Not all shiny objects up there are stars though. Even more intriguing are the planets, and in particular the giant Jupiter.

jupiter

Jupiter

A few weeks back I noticed an unusually large star that I couldn’t quite place. I still have difficulty translating the sky charts I find on the Internet to the actual sky above. Fortunately, though there was a newsworthy alignment of Venus, Mars and Saturn that got me digging for some decent sky charts so I could figure out where to gaze. I ended up at the Neave Planetarium where I typed in my coordinates and started orienting myself with the patterns. That’s when I noticed the placement of Jupiter and realized it was the bright star I’d been seeing. It was surprising since I’ve always thought of Jupiter as being too far away to have a significant presence in the night sky.

It’s actually true that the planet is normally too far away to be of much interest, but this year is different. Jupiter is on its closest approach to Earth, which happened last in 1951 and won’t be expected again until 2022 according to the National Geographic. The most exciting thing about the close proximity is that I was able to see four of its moons through a pair of binoculars! At first I wasn’t sure since I expected them to be too small, but the dots of light changed their position relative to Jupiter over two days. Two of them are much brighter than the rest so I guess they must be Europa and Ganymede.

I wonder when space tourism pioneers such as Virgin Galactic are going to be capable of getting passengers to destinations beyond Earth orbit.

(image source: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/)