The king of planets appears high above the eastern horizon soon after sundown. Jupiter can be seen first as a point of light that penetrates the atmosphere when the sky is still blue. As darkness falls, it is the resplendent, riveting, star-like object that dominates the sky all night until it sets in the west-northwest around 3:30 a.m., all week.
Jupiter is a town and country "star," dazzling even through light and air pollution, although it is more crystalline in dark sky areas. The largest planet in our solar system, it is about four times further away from Earth than Earth is from the sun.
Jupiter was closest to Earth - 365 million miles distant -- in September 2010 and will be at peak brilliance again in 2022.
Like all planets, Jupiter's orbit around the sun is elliptical, not circular; its distance from our star varies with its location on the ellipse. Closest approach to the sun is known as perihelion and furthest away is aphelion.
Earth experiences perihelion, 91.3 million miles, around Jan. 2 every year. Jupiter's perihelion, about 460 million miles, occurs every 11.86 Earth years, the time it takes for Jupiter to complete a revolution around the sun. Jupiter's most recent perihelion was March 2011.
While we imagine our solar system and the space between Earth, third planet from the sun, and Jupiter, sixth planet out, consider the following words from a chapter titled "Astrology" in Dava Sobel's "The Planets."
On Monday, Martin Luther King Day, see the moon close to Jupiter.
To contact Judy Isacoff go to www.naturesturn.org.