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updated 8/19/2011 3:33:27 PM ET 2011-08-19T19:33:27

At New York’s Hayden Planetarium, where I’ve spent the last 25 years serving in the role as an associate and guest Lecturer, we’ve been getting an increasing number of phone calls making basically the same inquiry.

A typical call goes something like this: "I was out around midnight last night and could not help but notice a brilliant silvery star glowing low in the east-northeast. It was far brighter than any star and I was just curious to know what I was looking at."

The object in question is the largest planet in our solar system : Jupiter. It’s a welcome sight, rising in the late evening and coming up above the east-northeast horizon this week by 10:30 p.m. local daylight time. 

And late tonight (Aug. 19), right on into the early morning hours of Saturday, Jupiter will have company. Hovering about 5 degrees almost directly above the planet will be the waning gibbous moon (your clenched fist held at arm’s length measures roughly 10 degrees; so the moon will appear about a "half fist" above Jupiter during the overnight hours of Friday/Saturday).

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The sky map for Jupiter and the moon shows how the two celestial objects will appear together tonight.

The king of the planets is moving among the stars of Aries, the Ram. Now that dazzling Venus is hidden behind the sun, Jupiter is indeed the brightest "star" in the night sky, currently shining about three times brighter than the brightest star, Sirius, you can’t miss it. And Jupiter will only continue to gain in brilliance in the coming weeks. [ Photos: Jupiter, Solar System's Biggest World ]

Jupiter will continue to rise earlier as Earth’s motion around the sun carries us toward opposition with the giant planet in late October. At that point we will fly between Jupiter and the sun and they will be on opposite sides of the sky.

So until then, Jupiter will appear to brighten even more, because the distance between it and Earth is steadily decreasing. Currently, the planet is 38 light-minutes from Earth, but this is destined to shrink to only 33 light-minutes by mid-autumn. 

Keep in mind that when you look at the moon relative to Jupiter, that our natural satellite is only about 1.5 light-seconds from us — or more than 1,500 times closer to Earth than Jupiter.

Note too, that Jupiter is getting brighter and also looking great in telescopes now, though to see it at nearly its highest and steadiest this week, the best time to look is during morning twilight, about 60 to 90 minutes before sunrise.

And I'm sure that should sky be clear late Friday night that come next Monday I'm certain to take lots of phone calls from people wanting to know what that "UFO" was below the moon on Friday night and that seemed to follow it across the sky into the early hours of Saturday morning.

At least you now know what that "UFO" is!

[Editor's note: If you snap an amazing photo of the moon, and would like to share it with SPACE.com for a possible story or gallery, please contact managing editor Tariq Malik at: tmalik@space.com.]

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.

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Photos: Jewels from Jupiter

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  1. Jupiter loses a stripe

    The weather on Jupiter is changeable, as these before-and-after pictures show. The photograph on the left shows Jupiter as seen in June 2009. The photo on the right, taken on May 9, 2010, reveals that one of the planet's prominent dark cloud belts has faded away. The lightening of the South Equatorial Belt is due to atmospheric changes. Both pictures were taken by Anthony Wesley, an amateur astronomer in Australia. (Anthony Wesley via The Planetary Society) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Family portrait

    Launched in 1989, the Galileo spacecraft has photographed Jupiter as well as several of the giant planet's satellites. Here's a montage that shows Jupiter's Great Red Spot and the four largest moons. From top, they are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Cratered Callisto

    Callisto is considered the most cratered celestial body in the solar system. The false-color overlay at right exaggerates the moon's surface features, including the Valhalla impact structure near the center of the disk. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dark face

    Colors are enhanced in this view of Ganymede's trailing hemisphere, highlighting the moon's polar caps. The violet color indicates where small particles of frost may be scattering light on the blue end of the spectrum. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Cloudy weather

    The mosaic at left shows the true colors of the cloud patterns in Jupiter's northern hemisphere. The rendition at right uses false colors to represent the height and thickness of the cloud cover. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. This is the Spot

    A true-color picture captures the subtle shadings of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a massive, long-lived storm system in the planet's thick atmosphere. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A big splash on Europa

    A computer-generated perspective view shows the Pwyll impact crater on Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter. The heights are exaggerated, but the central peak indicates that the crater may have been modified shortly after its formation by the flow of underlying warm ice. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A blast at Io

    This image of Io, thought to be the solar system's most volcanically active world, shows the plumes of two eruptions. One plume can be seen at the very edge of the disk, the other is puffing up from the dark volcanic ring near the center of the disk. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lava light

    An active volcanic eruption on Jupiter's moon Io flares in an image taken in February 2000 by the Galileo spacecraft. The dark L-shaped lava flow to the left of center marks the site of energetic eruptions in November 1999 at Tvashtar Catena, which is a chain of giant volcanic calderas. The two small bright spots at left side of image are sites where molten rock is exposed to the surface at the toes of lava flows. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Crazy quilt

    The thin crust of Europa's Conamara region is criss-crossed by craters, cracks and lines - indicating that the surface ice was repeatedly disrupted. The colors, which are enhanced in this view, show where light ice crystals and dark contaminants have settled onto the surface. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A moving moon

    In a picture taken in April 2001 by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, the moon Io looks like a marble set against the background of Jupiter. Io is the giant planet's third-largest satellite. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Anthony Wesley via The Planetary Society
    Above: Slideshow (11) Jewels of Jupiter
  2. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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