NASA: Hubble telescope spots comet near Jupiter
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Jupiter is visible in the early morning hours this week, rising in the east just before dawn. The Gas Giant will appear in tandem with Mercury – the innermost planet of our solar system – and the Ringed Giant Saturn. Jupiter will be the brightest of the bunch but, according to astronomer Tom Kerss, Mercury will be the real attention-seeker.
The astronomer, who hosts the podcast Star Signs: Go Stargazing!, said: “Starting on Monday morning (March 1), if you’re up before sunrise, look to the east and, provided you have an exceptionally low and preferably flat horizon, you’ll see a string of three lights.
“Jupiter is the brightest. To its west is Mercury and to the west again is Saturn.
“Of these three, the most notable this week is Mercury because it’s going to reach its greatest western elongation.”
Greatest western elongation or maximum elongation is the apparent point at which the planet is most separated from the Sun.
Mercury will reach this point on Saturday, March 6.
This will also be the planet’s greatest western elongation for the whole of 2021.
In other words, Mercury is best seen in the morning sky and the best evening view will not arrive until September 2021.
But before that happens, keep your eyes peeled for the Jupiter-Mercury conjunction.
Mr Kerss said: “Although the western elongation of Mercury will be very fine on Saturday, I would take time to look for it on Friday as well.
“Friday morning brings a close pairing of Jupiter and Mercury – a beautiful conjunction that at its best has the two sitting about one degree apart in the sky, with the much brighter Jupiter to the south.”
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At their closest, the planets will come within 0.3 degrees of one another and will resemble two bright stars.
To put the separation into perspective, if you stretch your arm out in front of you, about one degree on the night sky is the width of your little finger.
Jupiter went through a historic conjunction last December when it came within 0.1 degrees of Saturn.
The gas giants conjunct once every 20 years but a conjunction this close had not been visible for some 800 years.
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The planets came so close together, and just days before Christmas, the conjunction had been likened to the fabled Star of Bethlehem.
Friday’s conjunction might not be as impressive but it is still a sight worth looking out for, particularly south of the equator.
And with Saturn immediately to the right of both worlds, the trio will form a spectacular triangle of sorts.
Mr Kerss said: “This whole affair is much more favourable in the Southern Hemisphere where the local, late summer means that the ecliptic – the path of the Sun and the planets in the sky – is favourably tilted at a steep angle to the horizon.
“Whereas in the Northern Hemisphere, for most of us it’s more challenging.
“The dawn glow will be lighting up the sky when we go looking for these planets.
“But if you can find a very low eastern horizon for the mornings of Friday and Saturday, then you can still get, in my opinion, a lovely view and I thoroughly recommend it. So, good luck.”
On Friday morning, the Sun will rise over the eastern horizon – here in London – around 6.34am GMT.
The following morning, the Sun will rise about two minutes earlier.
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