By Mike Lynch
First this week I want to call your attention to a pretty good show going on tonight and Monday night between the first quarter (half) moon and the bright planet Jupiter.
Astronomically it’s called a conjunction, but I prefer to call it a celestial hugging or tango. Early this evening the tango places the moon to the lower right of Jupiter.
They’ll make quite a dazzling duo since Jupiter is the brightest starlike object in the night sky right now. Monday evening the slightly more rounded-off moon will be to the left of Jupiter as it continues its night-to-night eastward track among the stars on its way to being a full moon next week.
Both the moon and Jupiter are prime targets for even small telescopes. The moon is always wonderful with its craters, mountains and dark flat lunar volcanic plains called maria.
The moon is really where you can use high magnification eyepieces to catch some wonderful detail. Look especially along the line that separates the sunlit and darkened halves of the moon.
That line is called the terminator, a somewhat dubious name to be sure. If you were in a safe, life-supporting space suit somewhere along the terminator, that’s where the sun would be slowly rising above the horizon and there would be long shadows.
With your telescope here on Earth you can see those shadows make the crater walls, hills and mountains really stand out.
Jupiter, the largest planet of our solar system, is now just less than 450 million miles away and with that telescope in your backyard, even in areas of heavy city lighting, you can easily resolve the disk of the planet.
You’ll probably see at least some of its atmosphere cloud bands, and the four “stars” that line up on both sides of the great planet. Those are actually Jupiter’s four brightest moons that circle the planet in periods of 2 to 17 days.
If your scope is big enough and atmospheric conditions are favorable you may see the shadow of the moon passing in front of Jupiter. It will appear as a black dot against Jupiter’s cloud deck. A great website to keep up with Jupiter’s moon is from Sky and Telescope magazine. Check it out at tinyurl.com/4v4pww.
We also have some have comets on the way. Actually comets can be found in the night sky all the time, but most require a telescope to see them. Most of them are just faint “fuzzies” with little or no tail. A great website to keep up with where comets are at any given time is www.heavens-above.com/.
But two comets should be visible to the naked eye. Comets are basically a mixture of ice, rock, dust and other frozen gases They occasionally pass close enough to the sun to start partially melting and producing bright tails of vapor and dust.
One comet, called Pan-STARRS, may show in March be bright enough to see in the early evening twilight. In November and through December, Comet Ison could put on a really spectacular show. Some astronomers are even predicting it could be the comet of the century.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.