The darkness after midnight and before daybreak belongs to the waning crescent moon and the planet Jupiter. These two beautiful worlds – Jupiter and our companion moon – will appear in the east-northeast at roughly local midnight (1:00 a.m. local daylight-saving time) as seen from mid-northern latitudes. They’ll steadily climb upward until daybreak. Jupiter outshines all the true stars in the sky, and is only exceeded in brilliance by the planet Venus. But Venus shines in the evening sky for the rest of this year, leaving Jupiter to rule over the morning hours.
Jupiter will appear star-like in our sky, but in reality it is the solar system’s largest planet. It is more massive than all the other planets, moons, and other debris in the solar system combined. And we’re lucky to have it. Astronomers believe that its gravitational presence has kept Earth safe by sending asteroids and comets out of the solar system. A few still got through (sorry, dinosaurs!), but the impact history of Earth wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
The image at left shows Jupiter in a gibbous phase. This view of Jupiter can never be seen from Earth, even through telescopes. Our vantage point of Jupiter – as seen from our Earthly orbit – only allows us to see Jupiter at full or nearly full phase. Instead, an earthly spacecraft – the Cassini mission to Saturn – obtained this image of Jupiter when it made its closest approach to the planet while sweeping past it on December 30, 2000.
If you don’t like to stay up late, you can view the moon and Jupiter high up in the sky at dawn. What if you don’t stay up late – and you never get up before sunup? Can you still see Jupiter? Sure. All things come to those who wait, and Jupiter is just beginning its season of evening visibility that will last through the end of the year. Day by day the king of planets will rise earlier and earlier. Soon, it’ll be visible in mid-evening, then early evening.
Come early January 2014, Jupiter will rise as the sun sets. At this point, it will be at opposition, when Earth will be passing between Jupiter and the sun, causing Jupiter to lie directly opposite the sun in our sky and thus be visible all night.
Bottom line: Between midnight and dawn on the morning of September 28, 2013, the bright object near the moon is the planet Jupiter.