NASA says stargazers are in for an “extraordinary” sight if they look towards Jupiter in the night sky this week.
Let’s unpack why it’ll be such a spectacle and how best to see it.
Why is Jupiter so bright right now?
There’s a few reasons, according to University of Southern Queensland astrophysics professor Jonti Horner.
The first is because Jupiter will reach something astronomers call opposition.
“It just means that Jupiter is pretty much opposite the sun in the sky,” Professor Horner says.
“Jupiter is rising at sunset and setting at sunrise.”
This happens every 13 months and makes Jupiter appear bigger and brighter than any other time of the year.
“At that time, the Earth is at its closest to Jupiter for that year — so we’d describe that as Earth making its closest approach to Jupiter,” Professor Horner says.
“However, not all close approaches are equal, some are closer than others.
“This year’s close approach is the closest since 1963.
“The reason for this is that Jupiter’s orbit around the Sun is not perfectly circular — nor is the Earth’s.
“This year, the Earth is closest to Jupiter just at the same time that Jupiter is at its closest to the Sun, which is why this year’s opposition is such a close encounter.”
This will make for an “extraordinary” view of Jupiter, NASA said in a blog post.
Professor Horner also points out that Jupiter’s positioned in a dark patch of sky, which makes it appear even brighter.
“It’s a part of the night sky devoid of bright stars,” he said.
“There’s nothing to rival Jupiter — that makes it even more pronounced.”
On top of all that, we just had a new moon, so the night sky is also a bit darker than usual.
What is the best night to see Jupiter?
Jupiter reaches opposition on Tuesday between 5am and 6am AEST.
So it’ll be at its brightest in the early hours of Tuesday morning and Tuesday night.
But Professor Horner says it doesn’t really matter.
He says the variance in brightness won’t be that noticeable, so it’ll still be worth looking up later in the week — or even in the coming weeks.
“It will get a little bit fainter, but we’ll get a very good view of it over the next few months,” Professor Horner says.
When’s the best time to see Jupiter?
Professor Horner says around midnight would be best, because that’s when it’ll be almost directly above us in the sky.
“The further in the night sky, the more spectacular it will be and the clearer the air will be,” he says.
But Jupiter will be visible all through the night.
“You can look at any time of the night that suits you,” he says.
And it doesn’t matter where you are in Australia — so long as your view of the night sky isn’t obscured by clouds or dimmed by the bright lights of a city, of course.
“It won’t make that much difference, in all honestly,” Professor Horner says.
Where should I look?
It depends on what time of night it is.
If you’re wanting to see Jupiter at sunset, have your back against the sun and look at the horizon.
“At sunset, you’re looking to the east,” Professor Horner says.
“It’s bang on east, pretty much.”
Closer to midnight, it’ll be almost directly overheard.
But if you’re looking at it earlier in the morning, you need to be facing west — in the opposite direction of the rising sun.
Do I need any equipment to see it?
“It’s very bright, you could almost mistake for it as an aircraft with its headlights on,” Professor Horner says.
But if you want to see more detail, you can grab a pair of binoculars.
“You’ll see that it’s a disc of light,” Professor Horner says.
“You might see two, three or maybe four points of bright light next to it — the four really big moons of Jupiter.
“They move around Jupiter every few days.
“Look at them again the next night and you’ll see they’ll have moved.”
With a bigger telescope, you might be able to see Jupiter’s famous red spot, which is actually a massive storm system, not a geographic feature.