A small but brilliant orb arcs high across the sky tonight: Jupiter, the planet named for the king of the gods of ancient Rome. It’s quite low in the east-northeast as night falls, but soon ascends into good view. And it remains in view all night, so there’s plenty of time to look for it. You don’t have to look hard, though — for most of the night, it’s the brightest pinpoint of light in the sky.
Jupiter’s so bright because it’s the largest planet in the solar system — about 11 times wider than Earth. And it’s blanketed by clouds that reflect a lot of the sunlight that strikes them.
But Jupiter lords over the night because of its location. In astronomical parlance, it’s a superior planet — not because of its great size, but because its orbit is outside the orbit of our own Earth. In fact, Jupiter is about five times farther from the Sun than Earth is.
Right now, Jupiter’s orbit is carrying it “behind” us — directly opposite the Sun in our sky — so the planet is highest in the sky around midnight.
And this is a particularly good time of year for that configuration. The nights are nice and long, so there’s a lot of time to enjoy the view. And Jupiter follows the same path across the sky as the Sun. At this time of year, that path scoots low across the south during the day as seen from mid-northern latitudes. But at night, the path climbs high overhead, so Jupiter does as well, crowning the night sky with its brilliance.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012