Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

When One Giant Sets...Another Rises...

Okay, perhaps not as eloquent or well known as the similar saying about doors...but more relevant to the sky right about now.

I do hope you've had the chance to look at Jupiter during this Winter/Spring season.  For some time now, Jupiter has been the dazzling bright white star-like object in the western sky, easily visible as the Sun sets and lingering for a while afterwards.  Well...the lingering is almost over.  Jupiter is now setting perhaps two hours after the Sun, and that time will grow progressively shorter as the days go by.  By the end of next month, Jupiter will be gone from our skies, disappearing into the glare of the Sun.  Long before that happens, it will become very difficult to catch telescopically, being low to the horizon just after sunset.  The season for Jupiter is ending, my friends, and if you haven't yet spent a pleasant evening outdoors, marveling at the wonders of the solar system's largest planet, I urge you to do so without delay.  It would be a shame to miss it.

Jupiter as seen through a small telescope.  The small "stars" seen around the planet are its four largest moons.  Image by Donald Waid. 

Yet even as Jupiter descends into the evening twilight, Saturn also rises.  Climbing up from the eastern horizon around sunset and visible nearly all night long, Saturn is becoming a better and better target for that telescope lingering in your garage or closet.  As Jupiter disappears below the western horizon, Saturn climbs higher into the south, gently gracing the sky with its golden glow.  Saturn appears like a golden-yellow star in the night sky - one that doesn't appear to twinkle.  Planets rarely twinkle, except under the most humid of conditions (think August!), while stars are so distant from us the moving atmosphere of Earth causes them to twinkle even under the best of seeing conditions.  Look to the southeast at 10pm and you'll be able to spot beautiful Saturn quite easily.  It won't be as bright as Jupiter, but if you look tonight, the Moon will be next door to the right, easily guiding your eye to the planet.  And don't worry if you miss it - Saturn will be with us all summer long.  We expect to see quite a lot of it at our summer star parties here at the Virginia Living Museum - so come on out on the second Saturday of the month and join us.  Trust me, there are few sights in the world more amazing than Saturn's rings in a telescope.  Don't miss it.

Saturn seen up close and personal by the Cassini spacecraft.  Don't worry, you'll be able to see the rings without having to travel a billion miles.  Even a quality pair of binoculars will show you the rings of Saturn.  Image courtesy NASA.

So that's my advice to you - go outside and see the planets.  Take a deep breath.  Relax.  And drink in the wonders of the universe around you.

Until next time,
Carpe noctem!

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