All winter long, and for most of this spring, Saturn has been the planet of viewing choice, but now Jupiter has taken firm command of the entire night sky. It’s by far the brightest star-like object in the sky, already well above the southeast horizon at the end of twilight.
Throughout the night you can see Jupiter forge its way across the southern half of the sky, heading toward the southwest horizon by morning twilight. The giant planet of our solar system is a little under 420 million miles away, just past its closest approach to Earth for 2006.
As I’ve been telling you in the past several weeks in Skywatch, now is the time to check out Jupiter’s horizontal cloud bands, as well as four of its brighter moons dancing around the 88,000-mile wide planet. The best view is later in the evening when Jupiter is far away from the horizon, and you don’t have to cut through as much of Earth’s blurry atmosphere to see the Jovian giant.
This coming Tuesday and Wednesday night the nearly full moon will pass by Jupiter, making for some lovely conjunctions, or as I like to call them, celestial hugs. On Tuesday evening, the moon will be just to Jupiter’s right, and Wednesday night it will be off to the lower left.
Stargazing is a lot more comfortable now, but get your afternoon nap in. The skies aren’t really dark enough until 10 to 10:30 p.m., and if you are lying back on a lawn chair in the Everett area, it’s even later than that, especially later in June. It’s worth it though, because the stars and constellations of summer are on the rise.
In the western skies right now look for a rightward leaning backwards question mark. That’s the chest and head of Leo the Lion, with the bright star Regulus at the bottom of the question mark and marking the position of the lion’s heart.
If you lie back on that reclining lawn chair and look straight overhead toward the zenith you’ll easily see the Big Dipper, and not far off from the Dipper’s handle you’ll see a bright orange star. That’s Arcturus, almost 70 times the diameter of our sun and the second brightest star in the sky. It’s about 36 light years or 208 trillion miles away (give or take a billion miles). The light that we see tonight from Arcturus left that star when Nixon was our president.
Arcturus is also the brightest star in the constellation Bootes (known as the hunter or sometimes the herdsman), which actually looks more like a giant nocturnal kite with Arcturus at the tail of the kite.
In the low southern skies, around 10 p.m., you’ll see another ruddy star. That’s Antares, a star that’s so big that if you put it in our solar system instead of our sun, it’s outer edge would reach almost to Jupiter. We’d be somewhere near the inner core of Antares, the star at the heart of the constellation Scorpius. Look to the upper right of Antares and you’ll see three stars lined up diagonally that mark the head and stinger of the great sky beast.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and author of the new book “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores and on his Web site, www.lynchandthestars.com.