By David Ward
The two brightest planets in the heavens light up the evening sky in February. Brilliant Venus is climbing higher above the sunset in the west and is getting easier to see. Look to the east not long after dark for Jupiter rising above the hills. Once it is up, it will be visible all night long.
All of the planets in our solar system are very weird when compared to Earth, but Jupiter has got to be the strangest. First, it is big, bigger than all the other planets put together — 1,300 Earths would fit inside it. If Jupiter had been 80 times more massive, it would have become a small star, not even a planet at all.
Jupiter has the most extreme weather of all the planets. It spins very fast — its day is less than 10 hours long rather than the 24 hours we are used to on Earth. That high speed of rotation really kicks up the winds on Jupiter, which howl around the planet at 400 miles per hour. It has a storm system three times the size of Earth that has been raging for at least 300 years. That is how long we have had telescopes powerful enough to see it. If that is not strange enough for you, some astronomers think it might even be raining diamonds deep in the thick atmosphere of the giant planet.
Jupiter has been called the vacuum cleaner of the solar system. Its powerful gravitational field pulls in miscellaneous objects left over from the formation of the solar system, preventing them from slamming into the inner planets including us.
Also, Jupiter protects us from comets falling in from the depths of space at the outer edge of the solar system. Many astronomers believe that we would not be here without Jupiter shielding us from incoming objects of mass destruction. In 1994, astronomers observed a comet falling into the giant planet known as Shoemaker-Levy 9 which, if it had hit Earth, would have probably destroyed most of advanced life here, not to mention our fragile civilization.
Jupiter has 63 moons that we know about, four of which are large enough to be seen with a small telescope. These four moons were discovered by Galileo 400 years ago and he observed them orbiting Jupiter. Galileo became convinced that Earth and the other planets are revolving around the sun, an idea that was quite radical at the time. If you have a small telescope, try pointing it at Jupiter some clear evening and watching those four moons change position from night to night.
Here are a couple of hints for spotting Jupiter: It is very bright, and it does not twinkle like the stars but shines with a steady yellowish light. On Tuesday (Feb. 3), look for it to the left of the full moon.
Another cool event to look for will be on the evenings of Feb. 20 and 21, when a slender crescent moon will be floating near Venus in the west in the evening dusk. Look closely to spot Mars just to the right of Venus. Venus shines over 100 times brighter than the red planet and you might have to use binoculars to see Mars.
February is a great time to look at all the bright stars of winter, which are more brilliant than at any other time of year. By 8 or 9 p.m., Orion the Hunter will be standing upright in the south. It is probably the most familiar and unmistakable constellation in the heavens. Look for the reddish star Betelgeuse at the upper left and bright white Rigel at the lower right.
Line up the three stars in Orion’s belt and point down and to the left to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky and one of Orion’s hunting dogs. Compare its twinkling white light with Jupiter’s steady glow. To the left of Sirius, a slightly dimmer star, Procyon, represents Orion’s other canine companion. High overhead, reddish Aldebaran is the eye of Taurus the Bull, with which Orion is in battle. Do not forget Orion’s girlfriends, the Seven Sisters, embodied in the beautiful little star cluster, the Pleiades, also high overhead.
Hopefully we will have some sparkling clear nights at the end of winter to enjoy the show up above.