Steamboat Springs Venus and Jupiter are both closer to the Earth this week than they will be all year, but on opposite sides of our planet – Venus on the sunward side and Jupiter on the anti-sunward side.
Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
Venus has been dominating our evening sky since last summer, but on Saturday, Jan. 11, it will dive in between the Earth and the sun in an event called inferior conjunction. Venus will become the closest planet to Earth, only 25 million miles away, but it will be invisible because of its proximity to the sun. By the end of the month, Venus will emerge into our morning sky and early-risers can see it before dawn as our Morning Star.
Venus always follows close to the sun and can never be seen late at night. It’s Jupiter who wears the crown when it comes to ruling the midnight sky, shining brighter than any other object, except for the moon.
Jupiter is the first of three outer worlds to reach opposition this year — Mars and Saturn will follow suit in the spring. Opposition occurs when the Earth passes in between a more distant planet and the sun, placing the two planets as close together as they can be.
Jupiter is at its closest point to Earth and brightest in our sky on Jan. 5 when it rises in the east as the sun goes down and gleams brilliantly from high overhead in our midnight sky. On the night of opposition, Jupiter will be a mere stone’s throw from Earth — about 380 million miles. It will remain the dominant star-like object in our evening sky from now through spring.
Steady binoculars or any small telescope will reveal Jupiter’s four traveling companions, discovered by Galileo in 1610. They are the four largest of Jupiter’s 67 known moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
Watch from night to night as these moons constantly change their positions around Jupiter. With a medium-sized telescope, you can also see the two main cloud stripes straddling Jupiter’s equator and maybe even the famous Great Red Spot.
This winter, Jupiter will shine down on us from the constellation of Gemini, the Twins, very close to the twin stars Castor and Pollux and just above the familiar outline of Orion the Hunter. Jupiter will even outshine winter’s brightest star, the Dog Star, Sirius.
Don’t miss the full Wolf Moon rising alongside Jupiter after sunset on Jan. 14. Look for this dazzling duo hovering over the eastern mountains as darkness falls, high overhead at midnight, and hovering over the western mountains at dawn.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. His "Celestial News" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out “Jimmy’s 2014 Cosmic Calendar” of sky events on his website at www.jwestlake.com. It features twelve of his best astrophotographs and a day-by day listing of cool celestial events that you and your family can enjoy watching in 2014. Proceeds from the sale of Cosmic Calendars help to support the CMC SKY Club.