If you want to check out the solar system’s largest planet, the next few nights are the best nights of the year to do it.
On Monday night, Jupiter will reach opposition, meaning it will be directly opposite the sun and roughly 640,962,549 kilometres from Earth.
The opposition also means that over the next few nights, the giant gas planet will be at its brightest, at a magnitude of roughly –2.6. (The brighter the object, the lower a number it gets on the visual magnitude scale.)
Then on Wednesday, Jupiter will actually be at its closest point to Earth this year — at just 640,862,318 kilometres. While this argument doesn’t sound like most people’s idea of close, the Earth’s average distance to the monstrous planet is 786,884,800 kilometres.
The great thing about going out to view Jupiter — if you have clear skies — is that it’s easy to spot: it is the second-brightest planet in our night sky, following only Venus.
And if you want an extra treat, grab a pair of binoculars and you’ll catch four of Jupiter’s brightest moons: Io, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto. (To make it even more fun, do this over the next few nights and you’ll see them dancing around the planet.)
To help you know what you’re looking at, you can visit the astronomy magazine Sky and Telescope’s interactive webpage on the moons of Jupiter. This will allow you to see where each moons can be found in relation to the planet.
While all four moons are often visible, one might sometimes either be in front or behind Jupiter. Also, if a moon crosses in front of Jupiter — called a transit — it is lost in the planet’s glare to those using binoculars.
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Where to look
Jupiter begins to rise in the southeast roughly around 9:30 p.m. local time. (It’s closer to 9 p.m. in Toronto and eastward.) But waiting until Jupiter rises higher in the sky will help with visibility since looking at anything along the horizon makes the image shaky and blurry. Waiting will also provide you with a darker sky.
And if you can get to a dark-sky location, away from light pollution, even better.
As is always the case when looking for something in the night sky, avoid exposing your eyes to any light, such as your cellphone. After roughly 30 minutes to an hour, your eyes become fully dark-adapted, allowing you to make out faint objects in low light. This will make it easier to see Jupiter’s moons, which are very faint compared to the planet.
The next Jupiter opposition occurs on the night of July 14-15, 2020. At that time, Jupiter will be even closer, at roughly 619 million kilometres from Earth.