"Extraordinary" Views of Jupiter Possible as Planet Makes Closest Approach to Earth in 59 Years
Today, Jupiter will make its closest approach to Earth in 59 years. Jupiter is the fifth planet from the sun (Earth is third) and by far the largest in our solar system. A gaseous, stormy planet, Jupiter is well-known for its iconic Great Red Spot (a storm bigger than Earth and hundreds of years old, per NASA), dozens of moons, and wispy, hardly visible rings.
The planet will be in opposition — meaning Earth will be between Jupiter and the sun, according to NASA — and there will only be 367 million miles between the two planets. (For context, the farthest they ever get from each other is approximately 600 million miles.) Opposition actually occurs every 13 months, but because both planets have noncircular orbits, each opposition happens at a slightly different distance. This year's opposition is happening as the two planets' orbits bring them close together, which will make Jupiter appear especially large and brilliant in the night sky.
"Jupiter's closest approach to Earth rarely coincides with opposition, which means this year's views will be extraordinary," reports NASA on its blog.
The good news? If you miss Jupiter tonight due to bad weather, you'll have more than one night to enjoy stargazing. "The views should be great for a few days before and after Sept. 26," Adam Kobelski, a research astrophysicist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, told NASA. "So, take advantage of good weather on either side of this date to take in the sight. Outside of the moon, it should be one of the (if not the) brightest objects in the night sky."
Look to the eastern sky; Jupiter will rise there as the sun sets in the west. Kobelski recommends using good binoculars and finding an area with high elevation and darkness (so minimal light pollution). Even with just binoculars, Kobelski predicts you'll be able to see Jupiter's banding and a few moons. For more serious stargazers, a telescope will allow you to see Jupiter's Great Red Spot and a more detailed look at the planet's banding.
"Although stationed retrograde, Jupiter's luck can still turn on a dime as the great benefic gets closer to the Earth," Simmons says. "We may feel notably good-natured today, as this optimistic planet can encourage introspective gratitude at this time. Considering that Jupiter retrograde in Aries will oppose the sun in Libra during this astronomical event, we may feel remarkably attuned to how others can play a part in our pursuits and journeys. Confidence in our capabilities and relationships may soar during this optimistic transit!"