Missing Giant

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Missing Giant

Jupiter is missing. The solar system’s biggest and heaviest planet is nowhere to be seen. And it won’t return to view for a few weeks.

Jupiter is passing behind the Sun as seen from Earth, so it’s hidden in the Sun’s brilliant glare. It’ll be closest to the Sun on Saturday afternoon. That point is known as conjunction, and it happens every 12 and a half months.

Jupiter is known as a “superior” planet. That means its orbit is outside Earth’s orbit around the Sun. So Jupiter sometimes lines up directly opposite the Sun in our sky, shining brightly all night long. About half a year later, though, it passes behind the Sun and out of sight.

The planet doesn’t necessarily pass directly behind the Sun. This time, for example, it slides about half a degree from the Sun — less than the width of your finger held at arm’s length. Even so, it’s so close to the Sun that astronomers can’t point their telescopes toward it. And radio “static” from the Sun means that flight controllers lose contact with spacecraft at Jupiter for a while. The craft operate on their own, and save their observations to beam to Earth when the Sun is out of the way.

For casual skywatchers, Jupiter should return to view in a month or so. It’ll be quite low in the eastern sky during the dawn twilight. It’ll be in better view as we move into summer — climbing farther from the Sun, and shining like a brilliant beacon in the early morning sky.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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