Jupiter in Our Neighborhood
By Dr. Syed Amir
Bethesda , MD


Even if you are not normally interested in peering into the night sky, take a look at the eastern sky in the early evening hours and you might be impressed by the sight of an unusually bright, star-like shining object. It is the planet Jupiter rising, the largest planet of our solar system which at this time is readily visible to the naked eye.

In fact, it is the brightest object in the night sky, except for the moon, glowing three times more brilliantly than any star and surpassing the brightness of Venus which is normally most prominent. Jupiter can also be viewed setting in the western sky in the darkness of the early morning hours. The sight of the planet which is visible now during the whole night would be more spectacular if viewed through binoculars on a cloudless, clear night.

Why does the planer appear so bright these days? On September 21, the earth racing on its orbit around the sun, passed between the sun and Jupiter, coming its closest to Jupiter since 1963. The two planets were a mere 367-million miles apart at that time, a relatively short distance on the astronomical scale. Jupiter will not come this close to us again until the year 2022, some twelve years from now.

Jupiter shone most brilliantly on September 21; however, its luminosity will gradually fade with time as it pulls away from the earth to continue its eternal journey on its elliptical orbit around the sun. If you missed the planet in September, it will still be readily observable in October, but with somewhat diminished brightness. Jupiter which will be farthest from us when its orbit takes it behind the sun in April 2011, used to be one of the nine planets of the solar system, but there are only eight left now. Pluto was excluded from this family as it no longer qualifies as a planet, according to the new definition set by the International Astronomical Union in 2006.

Named after the King of the Roman Gods, Jupiter is huge in size, about 11-times greater in diameter (89,000 miles) than our earth, and it takes 12 years to orbit the sun as compared to one year for earth. Also, its distance from the sun is more than five times that of the earth’s distance. Its bulky size notwithstanding, its motion on its axis is faster than any other planet. Consequently, its day is only 10 hours long as opposed to 24 hours on earth.

The planet has been studied extensively by earth-bound telescopes and space probes sent by the US Space Agency, NASA. As far as can be determined, Jupiter has no solid surfaces and comprises entirely of gaseous, mainly hydrogen and helium, and liquid material. It appears surrounded by layers of mystifying dense clouds with variegated colors -- red, white, brown and yellow. The composition of its surface is, therefore, much different than of our planet which is made up largely of rock and metals. Scientists have been disappointed for they have found no evidence of water or any life form on Jupiter.

The intriguing feature of Jupiter that has baffled scientists for a long time is its giant red spot which can be seen by telescope and looks like a huge mass of gases violently rotating much like a hurricane. Its size, color and brightness change periodically and at its widest the spot is three times the diameter of our earth. The nature of the red spot and what causes it to change its size and color is a mystery.

This year, we are observing unusual celestial events. While Jupiter is cruising in our neighborhood, Uranus, the seventh and one of the smallest planets of our solar system is also paying us a visit and is close to earth at this time. Appearing faintly bluish-green, it does not evoke as much public interest as Jupiter since it is barely visible without a telescope, and is still some 1.7 billion miles away from Earth!

Despite the history of significant Muslim contributions to the science of astronomy in the Middle Ages and beyond, contemporary Muslims societies are not especially invested in its studies. There is not much discernable interest on the individual level either. Rural areas of Sind and Baluchistan, for example, in Pakistan and regions away from metropolitan centers in the US, offer clear, unpolluted skies to observe the movement of constellations at various times of the year. Even an amateur astronomer could derive immense pleasure and knowledge by pursuing astronomy as a hobby. The ability to observe even a minute part of it would introduce us to the splendor of God’s infinite universe, while disabusing us of exaggerated notions of our own importance in it.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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