Starting this weekend, sky gazers will see a rare view of the enormity of Jupiter as it appears its biggest and brightest in decades. Jupiter will be one of the most brilliant natural objects, if not the most, in the night sky.
On Sunday, Jupiter will reach its closest distance to Earth in 59 years at around 367 million miles. On Monday, the gas giant will reach opposition, meaning it will appear opposite the sun to those on Earth. Jupiter will rise in the east while the sun sets in the west. The two events will make Jupiter appear brighter and larger in the sky, with the best views Monday night, according to NASA. However, the planet will appear slightly bigger and brighter for the next few weeks.
Separately, the two occurrences are not exceptionally rare. Jupiter reaches opposition every 13 months, which makes the gas giant appear bigger and brighter than at any other time of the year. It also makes its closest approach to Earth, appearing larger, about every 12 years, the amount of time the planet takes to orbit the sun. The overlap of the two events is a game of physics and will not take place again until 2139.
“This is one of the fun things about living on a moving planet,” said Michelle Thaller, an astronomer at NASA. “Everything is lined up to make Jupiter the largest you will see in the sky for the last 59 years.”
Amateur astronomers will probably notice the differences the most, Thaller said. Using binoculars or a telescope, people will be able to observe the finer details of Jupiter, including its banding, and three or four of its Galilean moons, according to NASA. Sky gazers should find a high elevation, dark skies and dry weather for the best visibility.
Telescopes in space will also be able to capture a better view of the gas giant for the next couple of months, Thaller said. The recently launched James Webb Space Telescope has already captured an exceptional image of the planet in remarkable detail. The image, created from several composites, shows auroras above the northern and southern poles of Jupiter. The famous Great Red Spot, a large spinning storm that could swallow the Earth, and its clouds appear white as they reflect a lot of sunlight.
Jupiter has long fascinated astronomers, as it could provide clues to the early history of Earth. Jupiter was probably the first planet to form in our solar system, created from leftover gas and dust from the formation of the sun around 4.6 billion years ago. During this time, the large, heavy planet swung through the inner solar system and destroyed other new planets forming in its path. Debris from the destroyed nascent planets were some of the construction materials for Venus, Earth, Mars and Mercury.
Thaller said Jupiter might also be responsible for much of the water on our home planet. As Jupiter was moving through the inner solar system, it might have delivered some of the water that fills our oceans today. A lot of surface water on Earth “may have been brought by Jupiter coming in and dragging a lot of the icy stuff from the outer solar system with it,” Thaller said.
For galactic explorers, Jupiter’s moon Europa is also one of the likeliest places to find life in our solar system, outside of Earth. The icy moon could possess the three necessary ingredients for life: water, energy and chemistry.
As Jupiter makes its rare approach and opposition, admire one of the biggest physical reasons we are here. “There are so many cool things about Jupiter,” Thaller said. “It will look particularly big and bright over the next couple of weeks. It will just be beautiful.”