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Moon passes close to Jupiter in rare celestial encounter

Southern Australia and Tasmania will be able to see the moon briefly block out Jupiter on Monday night.

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The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) is scheduled to launch in 2022 and arrive at the distant planet eight years later (NASA/Wikimedia commons)

If you saw a particularly dazzling star near the moon on Sunday or Monday night, don't panic: it wasn't yet another meteorite, it was just Jupiter.

Jupiter and the moon may have appeared to have had a close encounter to those of us on Earth, but it's instead an optical illusion. The moon lay 250,000 thousand miles away from the Earth on Feb. 17, according to EarthSky.org, while Jupiter was over 1,800 times further away.

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The encounter was fairly obvious for Eastern hemisphere dwellers, but those in the Americas are likely to receive a less-than-dramatic showing, EarthSky added.

Lucky residents of southern Australia and Tasmania were able to see the moon occult (meaning, fully pass over) Jupiter on the evening of Feb. 18, noted UniverseToday — which added that the sharp-eyed in the Americas may be able to indulge in some daytime planet-spotting.

That's not the only Jupiter news this week: NASA has deemed Europa, a moon of the gas giant, the planet most likely to contain life, reports the Economic Times.

"Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to possess .... life," said NASA planetary scientist Robert Pappalardo to the Sydney Morning Herald.

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"Europa is the most promising in terms of habitability because of its relatively thin ice shelf and an ocean ... And we know there are oxidants on the surface of Europa," added Pappalardo.

NASA would like to act on their suspicion that Europa contains some interesting secrets: a cost-cutting mission nick-named "Clipper" would be able to conduct "flybys" of Europa, allowing scientists to gain data, says the SMH.

Unfortunately, NASA won't be able to fund the mission at this time, says the Economic Times, but will focus instead on the 2020 launch of a new Mars robot, similar to the world-famous Curiosity rover.

The European Space Agency plans to send the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer off on an eight-year-long journey to Jupiter in 2020, where it will gather information on moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/science/130218/moon-passes-close-jupiter-rare-celestial-encounter