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Eyes to the sky! Giant Jupiter shines at its brightest in over 70 years!

Thursday, September 22nd 2022, 8:05 am - Not since 1951 has Jupiter appeared this bright, and it won't shine as bright again for at least another century!

The planet Jupiter is approaching Opposition, and this is our chance to see it at its brightest in decades!

Throughout the year so far, each night, under clear skies, we have seen a string of bright planets stretched across the sky. Over the summer months, the most brilliant of these has been Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. However, keen observers may have noticed that it has been getting brighter and brighter in recent days.

This is no trick of the imagination, though. Jupiter has been getting brighter lately as Earth gets closer and closer to it, leading up to an event called Opposition.

Jupiter-Opposition-Sept26-StellariumThe night sky on September 26, showing off Jupiter during Opposition. The inset shows what the planet and its four largest satellites will look like through a telescope or a good pair of binoculars. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland

So, what's going on here?

As the planets orbit the Sun, Jupiter moves relatively slowly compared to Earth. So for every one orbit the giant planet completes, Earth 'laps' it nearly 12 times!

On each of those laps, there is one moment roughly every 13 months when Earth swings around into alignment with Jupiter on the exact opposite side of our planet from the Sun. This is Jupiter Opposition.

Jupiter-Opposition-Sept26The alignment of the planets on Sep 26, 2022, as the Sun, Earth, and Jupiter line up together. Credit: Celestia

At that time, Earth and Jupiter are at their closest distance to each other; thus, Jupiter will shine at its brightest in the night sky. This is also a great time to view the planet with a telescope or binoculars, as it becomes easier to see its cloud bands and immense Great Red Spot.


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This year's Jupiter Opposition falls on September 26, and it's a special one.

On that day, Earth and Jupiter will be just under 591.3 million kilometres apart. That's the closest the two planets have been since October 2, 1951, when they came within 590.7 million km of each other.

So, Jupiter is now at its brightest in nearly 71 years!

Jupiter Hubble Portrait - 2019The Hubble Space Telescope captured this view of Jupiter just after Opposition in 2019. Credits: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley)

"With good binoculars, the banding (at least the central band) and three or four of the Galilean satellites (moons) should be visible," Adam Kobelski, a research astrophysicist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, said in a post on NASA's Watch the Skies blog. "It's important to remember that Galileo observed these moons with 17th century optics. One of the key needs will be a stable mount for whatever system you use."

Having access to a mid-range backyard telescope, especially one with filters in green or blue, will provide even better views of Jupiter at this time, Kobelski says.


Read More: Everything you need for the perfect night of stargazing


"The views should be great for a few days before and after Sept. 26," Kobelski added. "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."

It will be an even longer wait before Jupiter comes even closer and thus shines even brighter — just over 107 years from now, to be more exact.

Based on the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab's HORIZONS system, on October 6, 2129, the planet will reach opposition at just 590.6 million km away. That's even closer than its approach in 1951!

It will take that long to see Jupiter even brighter due to the relative orbits of Earth and Jupiter — not only their timing but their shape as well.

Both planets follow elliptical orbits around the Sun. So, they spend about half their time closer to the Sun than average and the rest of the time farther away. This also comes with two points of their orbit: closest distance to the Sun (perihelion) and farthest away (aphelion). Those distances change from orbit to orbit due to the influence of the other planets in the solar system.

For Earth and Jupiter to be at their absolute closest, several things must match up. First, Jupiter's Opposition would have to happen simultaneously with its closest perihelion distance. Second, that date would have to occur precisely at the same time Earth was at aphelion (in early July), and it would need to be the farthest aphelion possible.

All those things may have lined up at some point, and they will likely do so again. However, the timing doesn't work out these days. Right now, with the way the timing of Jupiter's orbit (12 years) coincides with the time between Oppositions (13 months), we tend to see the closest Oppositions in September or October. And even then, they happen several decades apart.

So, with the giant planet so bright in our sky right now, it represents an exceptional opportunity that we will not want to miss!

This is an excellent time for astronomers of all skill levels to get outside and point their telescopes or binoculars at Jupiter to see it at its best!

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