An All-Nighter with Planet Jupiter
Stop what you’re doing and mark your calendar:
When: Sunset on April 7, 2017 to sunrise on April 8, 2017
What: Jupiter at opposition
Head to the backyard with your telescope at dusk for a rare evening with planet Jupiter. In fact, you can spend all night long with the gas giant. It will be “at opposition” – opposite the sun in the sky, with the Earth in between. Jupiter will be especially dazzling. This is its closest approach to Earth in 2017, making it appear at its largest and brightest. And since it only happens every 13 months, you’ll have a long wait for your next big date.
But on this occasion, as the sun dips below the western horizon, you and Jupiter will just be getting started. The planet will be rising in the east. By midnight, Jupiter will be beaming overhead, outshining most of its competition in the night sky. It will be well placed near Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, but will easily upstage even this heavenly body.
Aim your scope at the life of the party – the view will take your breath away.
“With Jupiter so close, the view through even an inexpensive telescope will be great,” says Brian Day of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. “You’ll see the planet’s cloud bands and storm systems, and you can even watch its four largest moons, called the Galilean moons, change position as they orbit.”
Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto will appear as bright pinpricks of light, with their positions moving noticeably near Jupiter throughout the night. While these moons looks calm from a distance, they are actually very active! Io, Jupiter’s innermost moon – is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. There are oceans of liquid water seething beneath the crusts of ice encasing Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.
Right now, NASA’s Juno spacecraft is orbiting Jupiter too. Since summer 2016 it has been returning incredible images with never before seen resolution, of Jupiter’s atmosphere. With the previous Jupiter mission, Galileo, ending in 2003, many years passed between these two missions and much happened in our continuous exploration of the solar system.
“During the years between the Galileo and Juno missions, we depended on telescopes such as Hubble as well as amateur observations,” notes Day. “And the amateur astronomer community really stepped up! They’re constantly monitoring Jupiter’s atmosphere and have even reported new storm systems on the planet. Some of the images they have taken are pretty amazing. You’d swear they were taken from orbit.”
Amateur astronomer Damian Peach has the opposition highlighted on his calendar. He says “My own imaging plans are already underway for this apparition using primarily a 1 meter telescope located near Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.”
If it’s cloudy on the night of April 7, don’t despair. Jupiter will still be close over the following weeks, only about 3 percent farther away a month after Opposition. As Jupiter appears higher in the sky each evening and the nights grow warmer, this spring should be a great time to keep watching the giant planet.
An all-nighter with Jupiter will be a great opportunity to hone your own skills. Don’t miss it!
For more news about bright objects in the night sky, stay tuned to science.nasa.gov