Jupiter to Make Closest Approach to Earth in Nearly 60 Years: How, When to See the Action

by Craig Garrett
JUPITER - stock photo

When Jupiter reaches opposition on Monday, Sept. 26, stargazers can expect to have a beautiful view of the huge planet throughout the night. When an astronomical object rises in the east as the Sun sets in the west, it is said to be in opposition. This is according to NASA’s very own blog.

Jupiter’s opposition occurs every 13 months, causing the planet to appear much larger and brighter than normal. But that’s not all. Jupiter will also make its closest approach to Earth since 1963 – almost 60 years ago. This happens because Earth and Jupiter do not orbit the Sun in perfect circles, so they pass each other at varying distances throughout the year. However, it is rare for Jupiter’s closest approach to Earth to coincide with opposition. This will make this year exceptional for people out for stargazing opportunities.

Jupiter will be about 367 million miles from Earth at its closest approach, nearly the same distance as it was in 1963. Jupiter is 600 million miles distant from Earth at its widest extent. Adam Kobelski, a research astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, weighed in. “With good binoculars, the banding (at least the central band) and three or four of the Galilean satellites (moons) should be visible,” said Kobelski. “It’s important to remember that Galileo observed these moons with 17th-century optics. One of the key needs will be a stable mount for whatever system you use.”

The best way to see Jupiter, according to experts

The best way to view Jupiter and its features is through a telescope, Kobelski says. He recommends using a 4-inch or larger telescope with some green to blue filters. The ideal viewing location would be high up in an area that is dark and dry. “The views should be great for a few days before and after September 26th,” Kobelski explained. “So, take advantage of good weather on either side of this date to take in the sight. Outside of the Moon, it should be one of the (if not the) brightest objects in the night sky.”

Jupiter has 53 known moons, but it is thought that 79 total exist. The Galilean satellites, the four biggest ones being Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, are named for Galileo Galilei, who first observed them in 1610. During opposition, the Galilean satellites should be visible as bright dots on either side of Jupiter using binoculars or a telescope.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been orbiting Jupiter for six years, and during that time, it has provided excellent images and data about the planet. Juno began its journey in 2011 and reached Jupiter five years later. In 2016, the spacecraft started to take pictures of Jupiter’s atmosphere, interior structures, internal magnetic field, and magnetosphere.

Scientists hope that by studying Jupiter, they can unlock long-awaited answers about the formation of our solar system. Recently, NASA has extended Juno’s mission until 2025 or until the spacecraft is no longer operational.