This is Jupiter month! On the night of May 8–9, the Giant Planet will be at its brightest for the entire year as it reaches opposition—meaning Jupiter is opposite the Sun in the Earth’s sky. And one and a half days later, on May 10, Jupiter reaches its closest point to Earth. Here is more viewing information.
When we say it’s Jupiter closest approach comes closest to Earth, it’s still 409 million miles! However, this is actually five million miles closer than last year, so it should be especially brilliant.
Viewing Jupiter at Opposition
Jupiter will shine all night long, from sunrise all the way to sunrise. Watch for it rising in the east when the Sun sets in the west. (Don’t confuse Jupiter with Venus which shines in the northwest.)
It’s stunning bright all night, especially after 11 PM by which time even-brighter Venus has set in the northwest. Jupiter is midnight’s brightest star!
- As a bonus, it’s hanging out right next to little Alpha Librae, the main star of Libra, whose classical name is Zubenelgenubi. Try “name dropping” that at your next party. Its name in Arabic means “the Southern Claw” which is weird, considering that Libra is supposed to be a set of scales, and scales don’t have claws. Unless you’re a dieter having a nightmare. Why claw? The answer is that, long ago, this little star under Jupiter was part of Scorpius, which is seen far to Jupiter’s left starting around 1 PM.
- While you’re stargazing after 11 PM, look for a bright orange star far to Jupiter’s left, and an equally bright blue star the same distance to Jupiter’s right. The left one is Antares, the alpha star of Scorpius. The rightmost one is Spica, the alpha star of Virgo. When you include the little faint star closest to Jupiter, you’ve now easily located the main stars of Virgo, Libra, and Scorpius.
- If have a small telescope and a night when the stars are NOT twinkling, have a look. Jupiter’s colorful features include dark belts, white zones, small dark and white circular storms, and, most famous of all, its Great Red Spot. This giant hurricane, twice the size of Earth, is sometimes beige, but most years it’s brick red. Occasionally it’s orange. Nobody knows what causes the persistent color—probably sulfur or phosphorous compounds.
Jupiter is a giant. You could take all the other planets and double their combined masses, and you wouldn’t get the weight of Jupiter alone. The ancients got it strangely correct when they named it the king of the gods.
If you don’t have a telescope, just steadily braced binoculars (or better still, those pricey but amazing image stabilized models), you can observe Jupiter’s four giant Moons found by Galileo in 1610, usually looking like dots in a straight line like a string of pearls. Together with Mercury, Jupiter is the only planet with essentially no tilt to its axis, which is why its moons can appear so aligned.
Look around the next clear night. Find the brightest star in the sky, but if it’s early, ignore the brilliant “star” in the northwest, which is Venus. And salute the largest and most dynamic world within at least four light-years of the Mall of America.