31Mar2017

The Giant Planet Rules For April

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We’re into a new month and as we get closer to winter more of the better sights are starting to re-appear in our Aussie evening skies.  The gem at the moment is the one everyone’s talking about, giant Jupiter.

Visible later at night, it’s the favourite of astronomy clubs all around the world. Why? Because it’s just so clear and easy to see. In Australia look towards the east after sunset and you can’t miss Jupiter. It reaches opposition on the morning of April 8, which means it lies in the opposite part of the sky to the Sun. This also brings Jupiter closest to us, so now is a great time to see the planet at its best.

If you promise to grab your telescope, I’ll grab mine, and we’ll go and have a look OK?  It’s that bright starlike object peeking above the eastern sky mid evening and looks so beautiful, in even the modest instrument. Next to the Moon it’s the clearest object in a telescope.

People are catching not only the cloud bands of Jupiter but the ‘Giant Red Spot’ as well. More easily seen are the four main Galilean moons that circle. Watching their eternal dance is always rewarding.

Jupiter’s moons are usually in a straight line but occasionally one will dip behind Jupiter for a few hours then pop back out again. Even in a small telescope you’ll see them as little ‘stars’ close the planet’s disc.  By the way, you’re seeing exactly what Galileo saw way back in 1610. The sight has remained unchained for over 400 years!

Jupiter continues to dominate the night sky all this month and is joined by a beautiful setting crescent Moon at month’s end. The giant planet will be big and bright all night and even the cheapest, well used telescope should be able to show you some detail.

Jupiter is the fourth brightest object in the solar system. Only the Sun, Moon and Venus are brighter. It is one of five planets visible to the naked eye from Earth. Jupiter also has the shortest day of all the planets, just 10 hours long. The rapid rotation flattens the planet slightly, giving it a slightly egg shape.

Jupe

Not many people know this but Jupiter has a thin ring system. Yep, it was only seen close up by passing spacecraft decades ago. Its rings stretch out to more than 225,000 kilometres from the planet and are composed mainly of dust from impacts by incoming comets and asteroids.

This will stagger you! Jupiter isn’t called the giant planet for nothing. Jupiter is so big it will hold the earth 1300 times. In fact, all the planets in the solar system would fit into Jupiter comfortably, with plenty of room left over to park your car. True!

By contrast, the smallest planet in the Solar System used to be Pluto which was demoted and reclassified as a dwarf planet in. Now Mercury is the smallest planet in the Solar System with a diameter of 4,879 kilometres.

Do you need an expensive telescope to enjoy all this?  No, absolutely not.  Many people hesitate to get involved with astronomy because they believe it requires expensive equipment. The only thing you really need to enjoy the night sky is your eyes, a dark viewing location, and some patience.

To get a better look at things, a pair of binoculars can provide a really good view. Many people will be surprised how many more stars and objects they can see with a decent pair of 10×50 binoculars.

They collect much more light than the human eye and will bring much dimmer objects into view. You can even see Jupiter’s moons with binoculars. A simple camera tripod to steady the binoculars is also a good idea, since your arms can get tired very quickly.  Written by: Dave Reneke

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