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Night Sky News: Gaze Up at a Planetary Showcase

While winter is not usually thought of as a great time to gaze at the starry heavens, some of the brightest planets are putting on a show not to be missed. Starting off with Venus, you can find the goddess of love dominating the early evenings in the southwest starting right after sunset. Look to its upper left and you cannot miss the king of all worlds, Jupiter. Not quite as bright as Venus it still looks impressive, especially through binoculars and telescopes.

Despite its 650 million km distance, Jupiter’s brilliance is due to its monster size – more than 11 times the diameter of Earth.

You can expect binoculars will show off Jupiter’s four main moons which look like a row of ducks beside the planet, while a telescope will reveal atmospheric details like brown cloud belts straddling the equatorial region. If you have good viewing conditions while using at least a 6 to 8  inch sized telescope you could even catch the Big Red Spot – a hurricane three times the size of the Earth, raging for at least three centuries.

Over the next month keep an eye on Venus-Jupiter planetary duo as they quickly begin to converge in the sky. This weekend the two will be separated by about 23 degrees; by the end of the month it will be half that, and by mid March they will be less than 3 degrees. That’s equal to the width of your three middle fingers held at arms’ length!

Saturn dominates the southern sky before dawn.

Meanwhile for those late night owls, the ringed planet Saturn will be on display in the southern sky after midnight until dawn. It shines like a yellowish bright star more than 1.5 billion km away and is in the middle of the constellation Virgo. Look carefully and you will notice just to the lower right of Saturn is Virgo’s brightest star, Spica, shining away at more than 260 light years away. They really make a pretty pair to the unaided eye being only 7 degrees apart – less than the width of your fist held at arm’s length.

By the way, if you have a chance, check out Saturn thru a telescope, and the rings will knock your eyes out- especially now that they are titled towards Earth at nearly 15 degrees!