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Planet Jupiter poised in front of stars of Gemini on March 6

Planet Jupiter poised in front of stars of Gemini on March 6 Read more

Tonight for March 6, 2014

Also, on the night of March 6, the waxing crescent moon shines close to the constellation Taurus the Bull's two major signposts: the star Aldebaran and the Pleiades star cluster

Also, on the night of March 6, the waxing crescent moon shines close to the constellation Taurus the Bull’s two major signposts: the star Aldebaran and the Pleiades star cluster

Jupiter and its moons as seen through a telescope on August 15, 2009. Click here for more information

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The planet Jupiter is stationary today. In other words, this dazzling world ends its retrograde (westward) motion in front of the stars of the constellation Gemini the Twins. Retrograde motion began on November 7, 2013. What does it mean? Only that Earth passed between Jupiter and the sun earlier this year. That event marked the best time to see Jupiter, since the planet was closest to us and brightest in our sky. The end of retrograde motion means the best months for seeing Jupiter are over. And yet you might not believe it if you gaze at Jupiter tonight. Jupiter is still incredibly bright, brighter than any star in the evening sky.

Tonight, Jupiter pauses in front of the stars before resuming its usual eastward course along the Zodiac.

Look for this brilliant beauty of a planet high in southern sky as soon as darkness falls. As seen from the Southern Hemisphere, Jupiter appears in the northern sky. Far brighter than any star, this blazing world is even visible from a light-polluted city. In a dark sky you may see Jupiter shining somewhat close to Gemini’s two brightest stars: Castor and Pollux.

Jupiter, the fifth planet outward from the sun, always goes eastward in its orbit all year long. However, as seen from Earth, all superior planets – solar system planets residing outside of Earth’s orbit – go westward in front of backdrop stars for a portion of the year. In their outward order from the sun, the superior (exterior) planets are Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

When the Earth in its smaller and swifter orbit swings by any superior planet, that planet appears to be going backward in its orbit for a few to several months. It’s comparable to passing a car on the highway, with that car appearing to be going backward relative to distant background. But you know that car isn’t really going in reverse at all. It’s the same idea when Earth goes by Jupiter or any superior planet.

Illustration showing why a superior planet appears to go backward for a portion of the year. As seen from the north side of the solar system, all the planets circle the sun in a counterclockwise direction. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Starting today, Jupiter will be moving eastward along the ecliptic and in front of the zodiacal constellation Gemini the Twins. But you probably won’t discern much – if any – movement for the next week or two, as Jupiter reaches its “stationary” point in front of the stars.

Aldebaran is the Bull’s fiery eye

Pleiades star cluster: Famous Seven Sisters

What is the Zodiac?