Just as the sun sets in the west, a cosmic jewel ascends the eastern night sky. Jupiter commands the heavens and makes it’s closest approach to Earth this year – and it happens this weekend.
Jupiter reaches “opposition” this coming Monday, which means that from Earth’s perspective, Jupiter is opposite the sun and we’re sitting in between them. In other words, when the sun sets in the west, Jupiter rises in the east. (It’s the same idea at full moon. The moon is opposite from the sun, and Earth is in between them.)
Second, Jupiter makes its closest approach to Earth tomorrow (Saturday, Dec.1) – and this “closest approach” always accompanies “opposition” within a day or two, says Geoff Chester at the U.S. Naval Observatory here. This year, the closest approach is a few days before opposition.
Jupiter officially makes its closest approach tomorrow (Saturday) at 10 a.m. EST, or 3 p.m. (Universal Time, or UT.) It will be about 4.065 astronomical units, or 377,866,000 miles from us. This big, fat planet is brighter than what we normally see. Enjoy its a brilliant -2.8 magnitude right now, making it the fourth brightest object behind Venus, the moon and the sun.
The last time the gaseous Jupiter was this bright and this close was Sept. 20, 2010, according to Chester. Jupiter’s magnitude energized the heavens at -2.9, about as bright as possible. Jupiter was a mere 3.954 astronomical units, or 367,548,000 miles.
Jupiter’s 2010 close encounter was helped by proximity to its own March 17, 2011 perihelion. On the large planet’s own journey around the sun – which takes about 12 years – the planet goes from close to the sun (perihelion) to far from the sun (aphelion, which is pronounced APP-hee-leon.)
Up close and personal: Jupiter’s disk diameter – which is now 48.5 arc seconds – is large, considering it was scant 33 or 34 arc seconds across just last summer.
Be there: Jupiter’s next strong close encounter with Earth is Aug. 20, 2021 at 1 p.m. Eastern time, when it will be 4.0132 a.u. away, according to the observatory. Just a scant 13 months later, says Chester, Earth and Jupiter practically embrace once again on Sept. 25, 2022 at 10 p.m. Eastern time. (That’s Sept. 26, 2022 at 2 UT.) Then, it will be a scant 3.952 a.u.
With clear skies, you should easily pick Jupiter in the eastern sky after dusk. It’s the brightest object in that region.
The Slooh Space Camera will broadcast a free, real-time feed of Jupiter this weekend. The camera begins its coverage on Sunday, Dec. 2, starting at 8:15 p.m. EST from the camera’s Canary Islands observatory. See it on Slooh.com from your personal computer or on any iOS/Android mobile device. This event will be hosted by Patrick Paolucci, Slooh president and astronomer Bob Berman, of Astronomy magazine.
Bigger than Hurricane Sandy: With the Slooh views, you’ll see the Great Red Spot – a perpetual hurricane that’s twice the size of Earth – stroll across Jupiter. Further, the Slooh views will likely render more color, such as the blue regions around the equator and the dark lightning-prone polar detail, according to Slooh promotional material.