Jupiter meets Saturn from Kingston

Damian Peach of Great Britain, currently the world’s best astrophotographer, took this picture of Saturn three years ago. Notice the bizarre hexagon at Saturn’s north pole. This year the rings look slightly more edgewise, and are blocked behind the ball of Saturn’s body instead of partially passing above.

Jupiter came closest to our planet Earth just a month ago, so it will continue to dominate the sky the rest of the summer and fall. Jove is in Sagittarius, but its brilliant presence really has the look of a dazzling star just above a teapot. We could tell you it’s low in the southeast, but such directions are overkill. Simply look around the sky any time after nightfall and find the very brightest star. It’s astronomy made simple. 

If you have a small telescope and a night when the stars are not twinkling, have a look. Jupiter’s colorful features include dark belts, white zones, small dark and white circular storms, and, most famous of all, its Great Red Spot. This giant hurricane, twice the size of earth, is sometimes beige, sometimes brick red, but it’s been orange the past few years. Nobody knows what causes the persistent color — probably sulfur or phosphorous compounds. 

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Jupiter is a true giant. You could take all the other planets and double their combined masses and you wouldn’t get the weight of Jupiter alone. The ancients got it strangely right when they named it the king of the gods. 

If you don’t have a telescope, using steadily braced binoculars, or better still those pricey but amazing image-stabilized models shows the four giant moons found by Galileo in 1610, which often appear as dots in a straight line like a string of pearls. Jupiter is the only planet orbited by moons that has virtually no tilt to its axis, which is why no matter where each satellite happens to stand in its orbit they all form a straight line.

So look around the next clear night, find the brightest star in the sky, and that’s Jupiter. And then notice there’s a bright but not super-bright star to its left. That’s Saturn. Those two giant worlds will inch ever closer together until they meet spectacularly on the first day of winter. 

That will be the best conjunction of our lives. But the time for a nice preview of the two gas giants is now, the first clear night. Country skies are unnecessary. You’ll see these planets perfectly well from the middle of Kingston.