Jumpin’ Jupiter: Tonight, the giant planet will be closer to Earth than it has been since 1963

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Attention space geeks: Have you heard that Jupiter is coming very close to Earth tonight?

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Well, no Really close. The giant gas planet, the largest in our solar system, will continue to orbit 590 million kilometers away. But that’s 375 million kilometers closer than when it’s at its peak, which is the space geek word for when it’s furthest away.

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Jupiter can be seen as a distant star for much of the year, but it will be especially bright and detailed in the night sky on September 26-27 because it’s closer to Earth than it has been since 1963—yes, in nearly six months. decades.

We asked Marley Leacock, an astronomer and science educator at the HR MacMillan Space Center in Vancouver, a few questions about the best way to watch tonight’s rare space spectacle.

When is the best time in the afternoon/morning to see it?

“Jupiter is in the sky almost all night,” says Leacock. “He rises in the east about 7 pm and sets about 7 am tomorrow. The best time to see it would be when it is highest in the sky, around 1 a.m. on September 27.”

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Why is it so easily visible right now?

“Jupiter’s visibility has to do with where Jupiter is, but also where the Earth and the Sun are,” explains Leacock.

The first reason is that “Jupiter will be in ‘opposition’. This means that Jupiter will be directly opposite the Sun from our perspective, putting Earth right in the middle of them. When the sun sets in the west, Jupiter will rise directly opposite it in the east. The opposition occurs approximately every 13 months.

“The second factor that makes Jupiter so bright is that it is also near perigee. Perigee refers to when Jupiter and Earth are closest to each other in their orbits. Perigee occurs about once every 12 months, and the distance between the planets will change because they are in two different orbits. At this perigee, the two planets are in the perfect spot to get the shortest distance.

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“The combination of opposition and near perigee makes the planet appear brighter in our skies.”

Is tonight the only time it will be easy enough to spot?

“Not at all,” says Leacock. “Jupiter is usually visible 10 months out of the year, switching between early morning and late night. After the opposition, it will start to be in the sky for shorter periods of time as the months go by. In early November, it’s already high in the night sky as the sun sets, setting four hours before sunrise.”

At the end of March, it will not be visible at all. But it will reappear at the end of May 2023. The next opposition is at the beginning of November next year.

Any tips on how to spot it? Would binoculars help?

“Fortunately, Jupiter is very bright and easy to spot even in a light-polluted city (like Vancouver),” explains Leacock. “It appears as a very bright star in the sky. I always say try to get to some dark place anyway, just to see the stars appear. An ideal location would be an elevated spot with a clear view of the horizon, especially if you want to see sunrise and sunset.

Leacock says that typical binoculars will help magnify the planet, but it will still look like a star. Those at higher magnification could allow you to see it in more detail and possibly even spot its Galilean moons.

However, true space fans will want a telescope, as “most telescopes with an aperture of 60-90mm will give you a view of the cloud belts and Galilean moons,” says Leacock.

More good news on tonight’s skywatching event: The forecast is for perfectly clear skies overnight. Happy viewing.

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