Jupiter Closest to Earth Today—Best Chance to See Moons Without Telescope

No Better Time to See Jupiter in 2019

June 12, 2019
Jupiter from Juno

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and turbulent southern hemisphere, as captured by Juno on February 12, 2019.

Kevin M. Gill/NASA

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Jupiter is at its closest to Earth today! This is your best chance of the year to see the biggest planet in our solar system at its very brightest. Even a set of 10x binoculars will be enough to see Jupiter’s four brightest Moons—Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. No telescope needed. 

Jupiter’s Opposition

  • Two days ago (June 10) was Jupiter’s “opposition.” Our planet Earth flew between the Sun and Jupiter, placing Jupiter opposite the Sun in our sky.
  • On June 12, 2019, Jupiter and Earth reaches their closest point all year.  (This moment comes a little later than opposition because the planets’ orbits are elliptical, not circular.)

What this all means: Jupiter is at its biggest and brightest all week.  There’s no better time to view and photograph Jupiter. Even folks living in the city will see the planet itself clearly with the naked eye.

And with nothing more than a pair of binoculars, you’ll be able to see 4 of Jupiter’s Moons, appearing as bright dots on either side of the planet. 

A medium-sized telescope should be able to show you some of the details in Jupiter’s cloud bands.

How to See Jupiter

Finding Jupiter is a no‑brainer.  It’s the very brightest star in the entire night sky, by far.

Plus, the planet will rise at dusk and remain visible all night with the naked eye. The planet rises the east at sunset, climbs high through the sky all night, and sets in the west Tuesday morning.

Though it rises around sunset, it still takes time to climb high enough for a good view. Face southeast anytime after 10 PM local time, look low in the southeast. It’s probably at its best around 11:30 p.m.

Jupiter in the “forgotten” 13th zodiac constellation, the strange “serpent-holder” Ophiuchus – as if anyone actually earned a living by carrying around snakes. (Well, maybe at circuses.)

Also, Jupiter is floating just to the left of the famous red star Antares. Around midnight, it’s due south. What could be easier?

Galileo and Jupiter’s Moons

It was the famous Galileo, when he was 46, who watched his life change radically in 1610. Indeed, events that year were destined to change the entire world. They involved the colossal planet Jupiter.

When Galileo heard that a Dutch eyeglass maker had created the first telescope, he was one of the few people who, sight unseen, could duplicate the instrument. Galileo quickly turned his telescope to the sky. The Moon—regarded since ancient Greek times as a smooth body with seas—was now clearly pockmarked with mountains and craters. The Milky Way’s creamy glow burst into untold separate stars. Wonder upon wonder.

But it was Jupiter, shining brilliantly in Taurus in January of 1610, that proved the most amazing and controversial. Galileo saw four “stars” lined up alongside the dazzling planet, and watched them change position each night. He realized they were orbiting around Jupiter.

This sight—409 years ago—was no small thing. At the time, Church doctrine bewilderingly insisted that Earth is the center of all motion. That here was another planet around which several other bodies circled, degraded Earth’s status in an unacceptable way. The stage was set for a life‑or‑death drama. As it turned out, Galileo saw no benefits after he quickly published his startling discoveries. Instead, it brought him up on charges, forced him to recant at penalty of being burned at the stake, got him placed under permanent house arrest, and left him to die penniless.

Seeing Jupiter’s Moons

Today, anyone can duplicate Galileo’s sightings, and without all that burnt-at-the-stake anxiety. The cheapest backyard telescope lets us observe the Moons (now named the Galilean Satellites). Indeed, today’s worst instruments far exceed Galileo’s best telescope, because back in 1610 no one had yet figured out how to get rid of the false smudgy color that plagued the early optics.

Even a set of 10x binoculars will be enough to see Jupiter’s four largest Moons—Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. They look like tiny “stars” crossing Jupiter. No telescope needed. 

There simply isn’t a better time to watch Jupiter than now, or a better time to contemplate it. Jupiter is large enough to swallow up 1100 planet Earths. Its gravity makes you weigh more than double what the scale says in your bathroom. And while its orbital speed is only half of ours, keeping it in the same constellation for a full year, it rotates faster than any other planet, creating horizontal cloud formations like the spin art at carnivals.

Few realize it, but Earth has crude cloud belts too. Our equator is generally cloudy. But 25 to 30 degrees north or south of there brings vast arid zones that include the Sahara and Atacama and Thar deserts, and the great dry area of our Sonoran desert that extends into northern Mexico. Going further north or south brings frequent clouds again.

Our own horizontal bands are broken, patchy and often overlooked. But Jupiter’s frenzied spin, 2.5 times faster than our little planet’s, makes its own dark belts and white zones solid and unrelenting.

With any telescope and a steady night when the stars don’t twinkle, all this detail springs into view. With white ovals and turbulent boundaries where belts and zones rub against each other, plus the Great Red Spot, Jupiter shows far more detail though amateur telescopes than any other planet.

So put aside any astro-insecurity. Don’t say or think, “I wonder if that’s Jupiter.” If it’s far brighter than the other stars, and kind of low-ish, be confident. By Jove, you’ve got it!

Want more? Jupiter and the Full Moon will form a gorgeous conjunction on June 16, Father’s Day! See more in-your-face astronomy in June!

About This Blog

Welcome to “This Week’s Amazing Sky,” the Almanac’s hub for everything stargazing and astronomy. Bob Berman, longtime and famous astronomer for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, will help bring alive the wonders of our universe. From the beautiful stars and planets to magical auroras and eclipses, he covers everything under the Sun (and Moon)! Bob, the world’s mostly widely read astronomer, also has a new weekly podcast, Astounding Universe

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