Jupiter will appear larger and brighter than usual Monday night, as it makes its closest approach to Earth since 1963.
Jupiter—a massive, milky-orange gas giant—is the largest planet in our solar system. The strips of color on the planet are swirling gases that churn in huge storm systems. Some of those systems, like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, last for centuries.
The planet’s awesome features will be in sharp relief tonight thanks to the way it orbits the Sun. Both Earth and Jupiter’s orbits are slightly elliptical, meaning that the distance between the two planets varies. And the orbits of the two planets are quite different—a year on Jupiter, or the time it takes to make one trip around the Sun, takes 12 Earth years.
At its greatest distance, Jupiter is about 600 million miles from Earth. But tonight, it will only be 367 million miles from us. Jupiter is on the opposite side of Earth as the Sun tonight, a position called opposition, making the gas giant appear larger and brighter than usual.
According to Adam Kobelski, a research astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the planet’s banding and several of the Galilean moons will be visible with good binoculars. “One of the key needs will be a stable mount for whatever system you use,” Kobelski said in a NASA release.
A 4-inch telescope or larger will be able to pick out specific features on the planet’s face, like the Great Red Spot. If you don’t have a telescope or decent binoculars, Jupiter will still be visible to the naked eye, but you won’t be able to see any details of the planet.
Still, its brightness will be more appreciable than usual thanks to its proximity. No matter how you choose to observe Jupiter, clear weather conditions, high elevations, and a dark sky will help. Though its closest approach will be tonight, Jupiter and its moons will be extra visible for the next few nights, according to a NASA release.
And if you want to see Jupiter in superlative color, you can refer to some recent images by the Webb Space Telescope that captured the planet’s aurorae in infrared.
Jupiter’s moons are also set to get some more attention. NASA’s Europa Clipper mission—slated to launch no earlier than October 2024—will give us our best-yet look at Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa. Scientists believe that a vast, salty ocean lies beneath Europa’s icy crust. The Clipper will map the Moon’s surface and use ice-penetrating radar to peer into the mysterious underworld.
There are exciting missions on the horizon for Jupiter and its satellites, but for the next few nights, we’ll get to appreciate these heavenly bodies from right here on Earth.