Jupiter and Uranus

StarDate: January 1, 2011

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Two giant planets are "wandering" past each other in the evening sky. One is bright, while the other is so faint that you need some help to see it. But its bright companion will point the way.

The bright giant is Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. It's quite a sight, too. It looks like a brilliant star, high in the south-southeast as darkness falls. It far outshines anything else in the sky at that hour, so you just can't miss it.

If you have binoculars, scan the space around Jupiter for four tiny dots of light: it moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. They form a diagonal line at that hour with Jupiter in the middle. Their configuration changes from night to night, so they're well worth several looks.

And look just above Jupiter for another faint point of light: the planet Uranus. It looks like a faint star, with a hint of blue-green.

Uranus is the solar system's third-largest planet, after Jupiter and Saturn. But it's about a billion-and-a-third miles farther from the Sun than Jupiter is, so it looks quite faint from here on Earth -- so faint that it wasn't discovered until the 18th century.

Jupiter and Uranus will remain quite close together for the next couple of weeks. But the two planets are sliding past each other. Uranus will stand to the right of Jupiter in a few nights, and to its lower right after that. Then Jupiter will pull away, and leave its fainter sibling behind.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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