After passing "behind" the Sun a few weeks ago, Jupiter is creeping up into view in the early morning sky. The planet rises a couple of hours before the Sun, and is low in the east-southeast at first light. It looks like a brilliant star, so as long as you have a clear horizon, you shouldn't have any trouble spotting it.
Several features distinguish Jupiter from its planetary siblings.
One is its great size. At about 11 times Earth's diameter, it's the largest planet in the solar system. And it outweighs all the other planets combined.
Another feature is its great storms. The largest is known as the Great Red Spot, and it's big enough to swallow two Earths. It's been raging for at least two centuries, and perhaps a good deal longer. Another giant red storm, known as Red Junior, formed when several white storms came together beginning in 1998. The system turned red three years ago.
And yet another of Jupiter's distinguishing features is its retinue of moons -- more than 60. The biggest are interesting worlds in their own right. Io is covered by hundreds of active volcanoes, for example, and Europa probably has an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust.
Look for Jupiter in the east as the colors of dawn begin to paint the morning sky. The bright, distinguished planet will climb a little farther from the Sun every morning, so it'll put on a better and better display as we head through spring and summer.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009
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