Arguably, Jupiter is always brilliant in the sky. It’s the biggest, brightest spot we can see on a clear night. Friday and Saturday, Jupiter will be the closest it gets to Earth. If you’re out at night, there’s no way you could miss it.
To find it, look to the southeast after sunset. Friday evening, the king of the planets (at least in this particular solar system) officially reaches opposition — from our blue planet perspective, Jupiter is directly opposite the sun and we’re in the middle. Think full moon, but Jupiter.
The bright, gaseous planet (-2.5 magnitude) rises at sunset and sets with the following morning’s sunrise, explained Geoff Chester, an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory.
“Jupiter is at his best and brightest, as well as at his closest distance to us,” Chester wrote. “As bright as he is, he’s still an awfully long way from us, over distant, at his closest approach.”
The luminous giant saunters into the night heavens amid the Virgo constellation, ascending in the east around 7:30 p.m., and becoming visible over the trees around 8 p.m. The planet sinks below the horizon Saturday in the west at 6:59 a.m.
Don’t fear looking for it, since Jupiter is easy to spot with your naked eye. The planet is joined by cosmic comrade Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo and the 16th-brightest star in the sky. In the evenings, Spica is below Jupiter. But the pair travel south then west daily, and Spica will be to Jupiter’s left before dawn.
The nearly full moon is close to Jupiter on Monday. The next day, the official full moon remains relatively close to Jupiter. By next Friday, the planet rises at 6:56 p.m. and sets the following day around 6:30 a.m., according to the Naval Observatory. On April 21, the planet rises at 6:24 p.m. and sets around 6 a.m. the next day.
It takes this big planetary lug — the fifth planet from the sun, filled with hydrogen and helium — about 12 Earth years to orbit the sun, according to NASA. In fact, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope will use this favorable viewing opportunity to mint new planetary portraits and add fresh detail.
Jupiter’s portraits can be enlightening: Hubble’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer captured a rare triple eclipse, featuring three of Jupiter’s largest moons — Io, Ganymede and Callisto — seeming to scoot across the planet’s face March 28, 2004.
Last June, the Hubble telescope imaging spectrograph captured the extraordinarily vivid fireworks of aurora dancing, as high-energy particles pierced the planet’s atmosphere near its magnetic poles.
For an engrossing discussion and fresh telescope views, go to slooh.com — an astronomy webcaster — Friday at 4:30 p.m. ET, where astronomers will deliberate the opposition and the planet’s moons, and grasp the historical and cultural significance surrounding this world so far away.