Skywatchers this weekend will get treated to some beautiful close encounters when the Moon glides past bright clusters of stars and planet Jupiter.
Up first on Saturday, April 13, look towards the high western sky after local sunset for a waxing crescent Moon. Look to its far upper left and you will see a super-bright star – that is planet Jupiter- visible easily even from within heavily light polluted city limits. (Related: Jupiter and Moon in super close pairing)
As the sky darkens -about an hour after local sunset – look to the Moon’s immediate left and you will notice a distinctly orange-tinged, twinkling star. Aldebaran represents the red eye of Taurus, the bull constellation and is 65.1 light years from Earth. A true monster compared to our little Sun- Aldebaran’s diameter would reach beyond the orbit of Mars if it replaced our Sun at the center of the solar system.
Look carefully between Aldebaran and the Moon in a darkened sky and the Hyades star cluster will come into view. Binoculars may help make out the distinctive V-shape of this 250 light year distant star association – one of the closest to Earth.
Now scan to the lower right of the Moon and a tight hazy patch of little stars can be glimpsed even with the naked eye from suburban skies. Known as the Seven sisters, the Pleiades is one of the better known sky targets for backyard stargazers. This rich open cluster actually has more than 40 young stars as members – no more than 10 million years old - and most can be seen with binoculars and small telescopes, however with the unaided eye will pick out the brightest five to seven of its stars.
By Sunday night, April 14th, the Moon will have risen higher in the western evening sky for a striking visual pairing with brilliant Jupiter. The cosmic duo will appear to be separated by only a couple of degrees – less than the width of your two middle fingers held at arm’s length. (See also: Jupiter, Venus, Moon Make ‘Frown’)
While Jupiter may look close to the Moon in the sky, their proximity of course is due only to a chance alignment from our perspective here on Earth. While our nearest celestial neighbor is on average only 380,000 km away, Jupiter lies at a whopping 850 million km !
Up for an extra observing challenge? Try and track down Jupiter during daytime this weekend. Remember never to look at the sun with or without optical aids as it may cause permanent eye damage.
With the Moon acting as a convenient guidepost and a handy pair of binoculars, Sunday may be your best shot at actually hunt down and view the gas giant with your naked eyes in broad daylight. It won’t be easy-scan for a bright star against the blue background sky. How soon can you spot Jupiter before sunset?