Jupiter viewing at its best on Wednesday night

Tuesday, July 8, 2008 | 5:40 p.m. CDT; updated 3:21 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Wednesday night will be one of the best nights of the year to observe the solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter. The Central Missouri Astronomical Association is inviting people to view the skies in the Laws Observatory at MU.

Val Germann, president of the association, said Jupiter will be the one of the brightest objects in the night sky. When the sun, Earth and Jupiter align, as they do Wednesday, scientists say Jupiter is in opposition. This means it is closer to the sun and the Earth than any other day of the year.

If you go

WHAT: Jupiter viewing WHEN: 8 to 10 p.m. or later (depending on the view) WHERE: Laws Observatory on the fifth floor of the MU Physics Building

Because of Jupiter’s proximity to Earth, astronomers and the public will get the best view of the year. Germann said this opportunity to view the planet could not have come at a better time because Jupiter now has three red spots that will be visible that night. Recently, the spots have moved closer together, an event that happens every few years, but the baby spot creates added interest, Germann said.

Until a few years ago, the Great Red Spot was a singular feature on the planet. This spot is more than three times the size of Earth, said Amy Simon-Miller, an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. In 2006, a second spot turned red. Previously called Oval BA, this spot earned the nickname “Red Spot Jr.” A few months ago, a third red spot appeared. This spot, the “baby,” is at the same latitude as the giant spot.

Simon-Miller said one of the best guesses as to how the great spot has existed for so long is that it pulls energy from little storms it engulfs. Small storms like the “baby” have been pulled into the giant before, but she said she is unsure what will happen to this one.

In her lab, she is observing the Great Red Spot and Red Spot Jr. Although these storms are at different latitudes, they passed each other in rotation. Her lab is still receiving data to determine if there have been changes in the smaller storm.

The Hubble Space Telescope will be providing detailed imagery of the spots’ interaction next week, said Ray Villard, news director at the Space Telescope Institute in Baltimore. Hubble has been taking frequent pictures of the three spots over the past few months, he said. In addition, amateur astronomers already have some recent pictures of the planet.

“It’s really kind of like room service that the spots are interacting at the time when we can see the planet the best,” Germann said.

Germann said he is excited to observe the planet. He said the planet should become visible in the observatory around 9:30 p.m if the weather cooperates. The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies.

People without telescopes will also be able to see the planet in the night sky, but they will not be able to see the spots.

“We thought that the big spot would destroy the small one, but we don’t know,” Germann said. “The whole world will be watching, at least the people who are interested in this planet.”

The observatory is open most Wednesday nights from 8 to 10 p.m. Germann said Jupiter will be visible for the next few months.

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