Starstruck

6 Sky Events This Week: Primetime Jupiter, Asteroid Juno, and Zodiacal Light

Jupiter gives its best show of the year, and the elusive pyramids of light put in a rare appearance.

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This image beautifully captures the zodiacal light, a triangular glow seen best in night skies free of overpowering moonlight and light pollution. The photograph was taken at Chile's La Silla Observatory in September 2009, facing west some minutes after the sun had set.


Watch the sky this week to soak in Jupiter's best appearance of 2015. You might also catch sight of a large asteroid and a ghostly light making tracks across the night sky.

Moon and Jupiter. Look for the full moon in the eastern sky next to a bright, starlike Jupiter early in the evening on Tuesday, February 3. The cosmic pair will appear about 5 degrees apart—equal to about the width of your three middle fingers held at arm's length.

Though the two objects may appear to be close together, this is just an optical illusion. In reality, the moon sits 1.3 light-seconds from Earth, while Jupiter is a whopping 36 light-minutes away.

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After nightfall on February 3, look for the moon parked next to Jupiter.


Moon and Regulus. By the next evening, Wednesday, February 4, the moon will snuggle up to the blue-white star Regulus, 79 light-years away, which marks the heart of the mythical lion, Leo.

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On February 4, the moon will pay a visit to Regulus in the constellation Leo, the lion.


Asteroid Juno. To see one of the largest known asteroids glowing at its brightest for the year, look toward the Hydra constellation rising in the east after local nightfall on Thursday, February 5.

Shining at magnitude 8, the 160-mile-wide (260 kilometers) Juno will be visible with binoculars or small telescopes, floating among the background stars. Juno appears about 3 degrees west of the faint, 4th-magnitude star Delta Hydrae.

The best way to identify and track this giant space rock is to sketch the same star field over a couple of nights. The "star" that moves over time is the asteroid.

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This skychart shows the position of Asteroid Juno in the constellation Hydra this week.


Jupiter opposition. Look for Jupiter to be at its best and brightest for the entire year in the evening sky on Friday, February 6.

The largest planet in the solar system officially reaches opposition—meaning it is on the opposite side of the sky from the sun—and will present itself as the largest disk in the sky, visible from sundown to sunrise.

Make sure to check out its retinue of moons through binoculars, as well as its complex cloud belts through a small telescope.

Zodiacal light. At about an hour after sunset on Saturday, February 7, and for the next two weeks afterward, keen sky-watchers in the Northern Hemisphere can hunt down one of the most elusive of astronomical phenomena: zodiacal light.

This pyramid-shaped beam of light is easily mistaken for the lights of a far-off city just over the dark horizon in the countryside. It has also been called the "false dawn." But this light is more ethereal; it is caused by sunlight reflecting off cosmic dust between the planets.

The best time to catch this ghostly sky light is about an hour after sunset, looking toward the western horizon from the dark countryside.

This celestial phenomenon is actually the reflection of billions of dust-size particles left behind in interplanetary space after the planets formed about 4.6 billion years ago.

Alpha Centaurids. Sky-watchers in the Southern Hemisphere get to watch a modest meteor shower on Sunday, February 8.

Known as the annual Alpha Centaurids, most years the shower is just a trickle, with about a half dozen shooting stars per hour. However, these rates can sporadically increase to about 25 per hour.

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This skychart shows the radiant of the Alpha Centaurids meteor shower visible throughout the Southern Hemisphere.


Look for meteors after local nightfall and before dawn the next day.

Happy hunting!

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.

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