An eerie glowing light will slowly trail beneath the moon tonight, following Earth’s natural satellite across the sky, early into the morning and onward past dawn.
But before you call the civilian volunteers at the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), or NASA, or your local police or any other government agency, know that meteorologist and Hayden Planetarium associate Joe Rao has the object identified.
‘Now that dazzling Venus is hidden between Earth and the sun, Jupiter is indeed the brightest ‘star’ in the night sky,’ according to Rao, who has served for many years as an on-camera meteorologist for local news stations in New York state.
If the weather is clear where you live currently, tonight will be a rare occasion to see Jupiter at its brightest, with little celestial competition adding light to the darkness.
If the weather is clear where you live, tonight will be a rare occasion to see Jupiter at its brightest, with little celestial competition adding light to the darkness. Above, Jupiter glowing beneath the moon earlier this month, captured by X (formerly Twitter) user @nakemushii
Jupiter will be brighter than the brightest star, Sirius, tonight. One astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy took advantage of Jupiter’s proximity around this time last year, capturing the gas giant in such extraordinary detail that it appears to look like a marble floating in space
Astrophysicist and Astrophotographer David Blanchflower took some snaps of Jupiter and the moon over night in the UK, as well as a few pics of Jupiter’s largest moons
Jupiter is ‘currently shining at -2.4 magnitude,’ Rao wrote in a column for Space.com this week, ‘more than 2 and a half times brighter than the brightest star, Sirius.’
Surrounding tonight’s ‘half’ moon and blazing Jupiter, the constellation ‘Aries the Ram’ will also be dimly glowing in the dark skies.
Jupiter’s orbit has currently brought it 40.2 light minutes from Earth, and it will only become brighter in the night sky onward into mid-autumn, when it will reach just 33.1 light minutes away.
To find Jupiter tonight, Rao advises extending your clutched fist at arm’s length and extend that first toward the half moon. Jupiter will be less than a quarter of a fist below and to the right of the moon.
Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest in our solar system.
It is a massive ball of gas that is made mostly of hydrogen and helium, with some heavy elements.
‘Jupiter’s familiar stripes and swirls are actually cold, windy clouds of ammonia and water, floating in an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium,’ said NASA.
‘Jupiter’s iconic Great Red Spot is a giant storm bigger than Earth that has raged for hundreds of years.’
The planet is twice as large as all of the other planet’s combined, and the Great Red Spot alone is large enough to fit the entire Earth insidee.
One spacecraft – NASA’s Juno orbiter – is currently exploring this giant world.
Facts and figures
Distance from Sun: 750 million km
Orbital period: 12 years
Surface area: 61.42 billion km²
Radius: 69,911 km
Mass: 1.898 × 10^27 kg (317.8 M⊕)
Length of day: 0d 9h 56m
Moons: 53 with formal designations; innumerable additional moonlets
‘Put simply,’ Rao said, ‘you can’t miss it.’
Although it will be visible tonight with a naked eye or a good set of binoculars, Jupiter will look even better with a telescope.
According to Rao, the best time to observe Jupiter with a telescope or mounted binoculars, will be when it is at its highest and most steady point in the sky, about an hour or an hour and a half before sunrise.
Magnification will also help stargazers view the four biggest of Jupiter’s over 90 moons: Io, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto.
‘Keep in mind that when you look at the moon relative to Jupiter, that our natural satellite is only about 1.26 light seconds from us,’ in Rao’s estimation, ‘or more than 1,900 times closer than the more distant Jupiter.’
The optical illusion of the their near proximity is sure to have many eyewitnesses reporting that a bright object appeared to follow the moon across the sky into the wee hours of tomorrow morning.
‘I’m sure that should the sky be clear late Monday night,’ Rao wrote at Space.com, ‘that come next Tuesday I’m certain to take lots of inquiries from people wanting to know what that ‘UFO’ was below the moon on Monday night.’
‘At least you now know what that ‘UFO’ is!’ he quipped.
Thanks to the tilt of the Earth’s axis and the angles involved in our planet’s orbit, the time at which your region of the world is likely to catch its first glimpse of Jupiter tonight will vary not just by time zone, but by your position north or south of the equator as well.
For high northern latitudes, the moon will rise with Jupiter in hot pursuit just before midnight tonight, August 7.
But for locations farther south, their night flight together will occur on August 8 just after midnight.
Locations past the international date line, in the middle of the Pacific, will get to see Jupiter and the moon even closer together, but on August 9, just after midnight.