Jupiter is freaking massive. It’s over 1,300 times the size of Earth. As such, it’s usually pretty easy to see in the night sky. But tonight the gas giant will show itself most brilliantly to Earth-based beings because it’s at opposition to Earth. That’s good news for amateur astronomers because it means Jupiter will be brilliant and visible from sunset to sunrise.
Opposition is the position at which Jupiter passes most closely to Earth, and tonight Earth will be directly between Jupiter and the sun. The actual moment of opposition is 6 p.m. Eastern, but fear not. Even if, at that point the sun’s not down yet where you live, Jupiter will be visible all night.
Look to the southeastern sky, and it will be the brightest object in the heavens — besides Venus and the moon — so you won’t need a telescope to see it. If you do have a telescope, though, you’ll be in for an even better view. With even a cheap telescope, you can see Jupiter’s cloud bands and the planet’s Galilean moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, shifting their positions around the planet over the course of the night.
Without a telescope, Jupiter is still quite distinct, with a characteristic orangey glow. You might not be able to see its famous red spot though.
Throughout the night, Jupiter will arc high in the sky. By midnight, it will be overhead. Jupiter will be near Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, but it will shine brighter than the star. It will set around sunrise, at 6:59 a.m. Eastern.
Jupiter comes into opposition with Earth every 13 months, so each year it seems to come a month later. Last year it happened in March, and next year it will happen in May.
The planet’s position relative to Earth and the sun is what allowed NASA to capture such a great picture this week with the Hubble Space Telescope.
Tonight’s event provides a great planetary viewing opportunity, a bright spot in a shitty year for Mars viewing. And even if you miss tonight, the following week should still provide great views of Jupiter.
If you live in a city or it’s just cloudy where you live, check out the live webcast from Slooh, either on the group’s website or right here. That way you can watch Jupiter in opposition all night, from the comfort of your home, through a network of telescopes.