Normally to find Neptune you would need to have access to a very dark, clear sky and very carefully examine a sky chart or star atlas; an attempt to locate Neptune can then be made using a small telescope or good binoculars.

But this week, using good binoculars or a small telescope, you’ll have a great opportunity to easily locate Neptune using another planet: brilliant Jupiter, which will engage Neptune in the first three close conjunctions, an unusual “triple conjunction” between these two gas giants.

Jupiter can be found glaring low above east-southeast horizon at around 2 a.m. local daylight time, the brightest “star,” in the sky at that hour; a nighttime object that certainly attracts attention even from within brightly-lit cities and invites inspection the moment you set up a telescope.

Better to wait, however, until a couple hours later for it to gain some altitude above the horizon haze.

Jupiter has the largest apparent disk of any bright object in the sky after the Moon and the sun.  Its dark belts and bright zones with their subtle markings resolves into a series of red, yellow, tan and brown shadings in most telescopes and of course its four large and bright moons can be followed for hours, even in steadily held binoculars.  Through a telescope you can watch as they speed in front of Jupiter, throwing their shadows on the planet, or vanish behind its disk or suddenly becoming eclipsed by its shadow.

In contrast to Jupiter, trying to resolve Neptune into a disk will be much more difficult. You’re going to need at least a four-inch telescope with a magnification of no less than 200-power, just to turn Neptune into a tiny blue dot of light.

How exciting!  Hopefully the clouds here at my house will lift by then.

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