The solar system’s most massive planet, Jupiter, will make its closest approach to Earth in 59 years on September 26, although the gas giant will be directly opposite the Sun as seen from Earth, an astronomical arrangement known as opposition.
Resistance is common too Jupiterhappens every 13 months, and the planet and Earth approach about once a year. The event that sees Earth in between sun and Jupiter rarely coincides with the massive planet’s closest approach to our planet, known as perigee. But on this occasion, opposition occurs on September 26 and closest approach on September 25.
As a result, the gas giant planet will be unusually bright and large in the sky, offering a unique opportunity to see its features. Jupiter should be in a prime position for skywatchers with binoculars or a small telescope for several days around the two milestones. Finding a location with higher elevation, dark skies, and dry weather will all improve the planet’s visibility.
“Views should be great for a few days before and after September 26,” said Adam Kobelski, a research astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. NASA statement (opens in a new tab). “So take advantage of good weather either side of this date to take in the view. Outside moonit should be one of the (if not the) brightest objects in the night sky.”
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The planets in the solar system orbit the sun in flat circles or ellipses, rather than in perfect circles, so Earth and Jupiter cross paths at varying distances.
While Earth takes about 365 days to orbit the Sun, Jupiter takes a more leisurely route around the star, completing one orbit every 4,333 Earth days or 12 Earth years.
During next week’s close approach, the NASA gas giant will be about 367 million miles (590 million kilometers) from our planet, according to the NASA statement. At its farthest point, Jupiter is about 600 million miles (960 million km) from Earth. The last time Jupiter was this close to our planet – and the last time skywatchers could see it this big and bright in the sky – was in October 1963.
The favorable alignments mean that some of Jupiter’s most fascinating attributes should be visible from Earth.
“With good binoculars, the band — at least the central band — and three or four of the Galilean satellites should be visible,” Kobelski said in the statement. “It is important to remember that Galileo observed these moons with 17th century optics.”
The Galilean satellites are the four largest of Jupiter’s 79 moons known to date. These moons, called Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, should be visible as bright dots on either side of the gas giant.
The icy moon Europe hides a vast ocean and has become a prime target for investigating whether life might exist elsewhere in the solar system. To this end, Europa Clipper will venture to the Jovian moon, with launch scheduled for 2024 at the earliest. Europa will also launch the Jupiter Icy Moons spacecraft to explore three of the Galilean moons, with launch targeted for April 2023.
Kobelski said astronomers using a larger, more powerful telescope should be able to observe Jupiter’s Great red staina storm that has been raging through the planet’s atmosphere for at least two centuries.
At an estimated 10,000 miles (16,000 km) across, the Great Red Spot is believed to be the Solar System’s largest storm. Wind gusts between 270 mph (430 km/h) and 425 mph (685 km/h). Recent observations of the Great Red Spot by NASA’s Juno spacecraft indicated that the storm also has surprising depth. Already twice as wide as our planet, the storm is deep enough to reach from the Earth’s ocean floor to International Space Station.
However, Jupiter isn’t just fascinating to backyard astronomers; Scientists believe studying the giant could help explain how the solar system formed the way it did.
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