If you go outside shortly after sunset and face east, you'll see a brilliant white "star" madly shining down on you. That's no star: it's Jupiter, king of the planets, the brightest object in the sky right now after the Sun and the Moon. Now is the best time to observe it, since the Earth is placed directly between the giant planet and the Sun, meaning we're as close to it as we'll get all year.
"Amateur" astronomer Emil Kraaikamp took advantage of the situation, and, with his friend Rik ter Horst -- who crafted his own 40 cm (16") mirror telescope -- took this amazing shot of Jupiter:
[Click to enjovianate.]
I found this image on the Astron/Jive image of the day page (you should really subscribe to their RSS feed), and Emil gave me permission to use it here. Isn't it lovely? The level of detail is quite incredible, about as good as you can possibly get with a 40 cm 'scope. They used a video camera to capture a lot of frames, and then pick the best ones to add together. Earth's atmosphere roils and shifts, causing images to blur out, so this technique compensates for that -- and Jupiter obliges by being very bright, allowing for lots of short exposures in rapid succession.
The little guy below Jupiter and to the right is the moon Ganymede, which, if Jupiter weren't there, would be considered a planet in its own right. It's the biggest moon in the solar system, and actually comfortably larger than Mercury -- though also much less massive, because Mercury has lots of iron, while Ganymede is mostly rock and ice. It's incredible that advances in technology have made it possible to capture such detail on an object 600 million km (360 million miles) away! The image on the right of Ganymede is a NASA map of the moon based on space probe images, showing that those features Emil and Rik captured are real.
Emil tells me it's been cloudy where he is lately, which is too bad. It's been touch-and-go here with the weather, but seeing this is making me think of hauling out my own 'scope and taking a look. I should get on that before the snow starts to fall here in Boulder...
In the meantime, check out the Related posts links below to see more of Emil's amazing work.