By Jove: Jupiter at Opposition for 2018

A recent capture of Jupiter from April 21st. Image credit and copyright: Efrain Morales Rivera.

It’s a question I’ve fielded lots this weekend leading up to last night’s April Pink Full Moon, and one I expect we’ll get again tonight: “What’s that bright star near the Moon?”

That bright “star” is actually a planet, the king of them all as far as our Solar System is concerned: Jupiter. May also ushers in Jupiter observing season, as the planet reaches opposition on May 9th, rising in the east opposite to the setting Sun to the west. Jupiter now joins Venus in the dusk sky, ending the planetary drought plaguing many an evening star party.

Looking east tonight (April 30th) at 9 PM local. Created using Stellarium.

All planetary news seems to lead back to Jupiter this season. Just last week, we wrote about a recent study, suggesting that Jupiter actually gets hit by asteroids and comets on a much more regular basis than astronomers thought.

It’s always worth keeping a sharp eye on Jupiter. Shining a magnitude -2.5 near opposition, you can even pick Jupiter out against the deep blue daytime sky… if you know exactly where to look for it. The Moon visits Jupiter once every orbit, and the next time to try this feat of visual athletics is on May 27th, just before sunset.

Jupiter is 4.4 astronomical units (658 million kilometers) distant at opposition this year, and presents a disk 45” across.

At the eyepiece, Jupiter presents a roiling upper atmosphere, completing an amazing rotation once every 9.9 hours. This is not only fast enough to give Jove a noticeable equatorial bulge at its equator, but you can also observe and image Jupiter in its entirety in just one clear evening.

One of the first things that becomes apparent observing Jupiter at low power are its retinue of four Galilean moons. These are, from interior outward: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Speedy Io takes just 1.8 days to orbit Jupiter once, while outermost Callisto takes a leisurely 16.7 days to make one circuit around Jupiter. Not only is it fun to note the changes in configuration of Jupiter’s major moons from night to night, but it’s interesting to watch them cast shadows onto Jupiter’s cloud tops and alternately disappear and reappear in and out of Jupiter’s shadow.

Two shadows crossing the face of Jupiter on July 30th, 2018. Created using Stellarium.

A few times a year, you can catch two moons casting a shadow on Jupiter at once. These usually happen in seasons, with the next pair involving Io and Europa (the most frequent transiters) set to occur on July 30th, 2018. Rarer still are triple transits, which last occurred on January 24th, 2015 and will happen next on March 20th, 2032. You’ll never see a quadruple transit though… and the outermost moon Callisto is the only one that can “miss” Jupiter, as it does in 2018.

The celestial scene changes, too, like a spotlight cast over the stage of the sky. At opposition, for example, Jupiter and its moons cast their respective shadows straight back, nearly behind them from our perspective. Watch how this changes, however, as Jupiter heads towards quadrature at 90 degrees elongation east of the Sun on August 6th, 2018 and we see Jupiter and its moons cast their shadows to the side.

Danish astronomer Ole Rømer noted a discrepancy in the timings of shadow transits near opposition versus quadrature and correctly realized that light from the events was actually taking time to transit from Jupiter to his telescope on Earth, and made the first crude measurement of the speed of light in 1676.

Crank up the magnification, and the Great Red Spot will pop into view if it’s turned Earthward. Though this centuries-long storm has been shrinking in recent years, it also seems to be condensing and reddening once again, versus the pale salmon color its exhibited as of late. How old is the Great Red Spot? Will it disappear this century, disappointing legions of school kids who diligently crayon in a ruby red eye on Jove?

One thing is for sure; the face of Jove does change over time. Another interesting example is the disappearing act that Jove’s Southern Equatorial Belt (SEB) makes every decade or so… this last occurred during 2010 season, and we may soon be due again. It would be an amazing scientific opportunity if this were to occur before NASA’s Juno spacecraft completes its mission this summer. Our question: why does the SEB disappear, while the NEB seems to be a permanent fixture on Jove?

All mysteries presented by the largest planet in our solar system, this opposition season 2018.

-Track the positions of Jupiter’s moons and the Great Red Spot using the SETI PDS Rings node, S&T’s app and Project Pluto.

By Jove: Jupiter at Opposition 2017

Jupiter from January 7th, 0217. Image credit and copyright: Fred Locklear.

Been missing the evening planets? Currently, Saturn and Venus rule the dawn, and Mars is sinking into the dusk as it recedes towards the far side of the Sun. The situation has been changing for one planet however, as Jupiter reaches opposition this week.

Jupiter in 2017

Currently in the constellation Virgo near the September equinoctial point where the celestial equator meets the ecliptic in 2017, Jupiter rules the evening skies. Orbiting the Sun once every 11.9 years, Jupiter moves roughly one zodiacal constellation eastward per year, as oppositions for Jupiter occur about once every 399 days.

As the name implies, “opposition” is simply the point at which a planet seems to rise “opposite” to the setting Sun.

At opposition 2017 on Friday, April 7th, Jupiter shines at magnitude -2.5 and is 666.5 million kilometers distant. Jupiter just passed aphelion on February 16th, 2017 at 5.46 AU 846 million kilometers from the Sun, making this and recent oppositions slightly less favorable. An April opposition for Jupiter also means it’ll now start to occur in the southern hemisphere for this and the next several years. Jupiter crosses the celestial equator northward again in 2022.

The path of Jupiter through 2017. Image credit: Starry Night.

Can you see Ganymede with the naked eye? Shining at magnitude +4.6, the moon lies just on the edge of naked eye visibility from a dark sky site… the problem is, the moon never strays more than 5′ from the dazzling limb of Jupiter. Here’s a fun and easy experiment: attempt to spot Ganymede through this month’s opposition season, using nothing more than a pair of MK-1 eyeballs. Then at the end of the month, check an ephemeris for greatest elongations of the moon. Any matches?

With binoculars, the first thing you’ll notice is the four bright Galilean moons of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. At about 10x magnification or so, Jupiter will begin to resolve as a disk. With binoculars, you get a very similar view of Jupiter as Galileo had with his primitive spy glass.

At the telescope eyepiece at low power you can see the main cloud bands of Jove, the northern and southern equatorial belts. Shadow transits and eclipses of the Jovian moons are also fun to watch, and frequent for the innermost two moons Io and Europa.  Orbiting Jupiter once every seven days, transits of Ganymede are less frequent, and outermost Callisto is the only moon that can “miss” Jupiter on occasion, as it does this year until transits resume in 2020.

Jupiter an the Great Red Spot from January 29th, 2017. Image credit and copyright: Efrain Morales.

Jupiter’s one of the best planets for imaging: unlike Venus or bashful Mars, things are actually happening on the cloudtops of Jove. You can see smaller storms come and go as the Great Red Spot make its circuit once every 10 hours. Follow Jupiter from sunset through sunrise, and it will rotate just about all the way around once. Strange to think, we’ve been using modified webcams to image Jupiter for over a decade and a half now.

Jupiter and Io from 2006. Photo by author.

The major moons of Jupiter cast shadows nearly straight back as seen from our vantage point near opposition. After opposition, the shadows of the moons and the planet itself begin to slide to one side and will continue to do so as the planet heads towards quadrature 90 degrees east of the Sun. In 2017, quadrature for Jupiter occurs on July 5th as the planet sits due south for northern hemisphere observers at sunset. Distances to Jupiter vary through opposition, quadrature and solar conjunction, and Danish astronomer Ole Rømer used discrepancies in predictions versus actual observed phenomena of Jupiter’s moons to make the first good estimation of the speed of light in 1676.

Double shadow transits are also interesting to watch, and a season of double events involving Io and Europa begins next month on May 12th.

Jupiter will rule the dusk skies until solar conjunction on October 26th, 2017.

It’s also interesting to note that while the Northern Equatorial Belt has been permanent over the last few centuries of telescopic observation, the Southern Equatorial Belt seems to pull a disappearing act roughly every decade or so. This last occurred in 2010, and we might just be due again over the next few years. The Great Red Spot has also looked a little more pale and salmon over the last few years, and may vanish altogether this century.

Finally, the Full Moon typically sits near a given planet near opposition, as occurs next week on the evening of April 10/11th.

Jupiter, the Moon and Spica on the evening of April 10th. Credit: Stellarium.

The next occultation of Jupiter by the Moon occurs on October 31st, 2019.

Don’t miss a chance to observe the king of the planets in 2017.

– Here’s a handy JoveMoons for Android and Iphone for planning your next Jovian observing session.

-Be sure to check out our complete guide to oppositions, elongations, occultations and more with our 101 Astronomical Events for 2017, a free e-book from Universe Today.

-Send those images of Jupiter in to Universe Today’s Flickr forum.

By Jove: Jupiter Reaches Opposition on February 6th

Did you see the brilliant Full Snow Moon rising last night? Then you might’ve also noticed a bright nearby ‘star’. Alas, that was no star, but the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. And it was no coincidence that the king of the gas giants is near the Full Moon this February, as Jupiter reaches opposition this Friday on February 6th at 18:00 Universal Time or 1:00 PM EST.

As the term implies, opposition simply means that an outer planet sits opposite to the Sun. Mercury and Venus can never reach opposition. Orbiting the Sun once every 11.9 years, oppositions for Jupiter occur once every 399 days, or roughly every 13 months. This means that only one opposition for Jupiter can happen per year max, and these events precess forward on the Gregorian calendar by about a month and move one zodiacal constellation eastward per year.

Starry Night.
The apparent path of Jupiter through Spring 2015. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

Through a telescope, Jupiter exhibits an ochre disk 40” in diameter striped with two main cloud belts. The northern equatorial belt seems permanent, while the southern equatorial belt is prone to pulling a ‘disappearing act’ every decade of so, as last occurred in 2010. The Great Red Spot is another prominent feature gracing the Jovian cloud tops, though its appeared salmon to brick-colored in recent years and seems to be shrinking.

Jupiter rotates once every 9.9 hours, fast enough that you can watch one full rotation in a single night.

Photo by author
Jupiter near opposition in 2014. Photo by author.

It’s also fascinating to watch the nightly dance of Jupiter’s four large moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto as they alternatively cast shadows on the Jovian cloud tops and disappear into its shadow. Near opposition, this shadow casting activity is nearly straight back as seen from our perspective.  Here is the tiny ‘mini-solar system’ that fascinated Galileo and further convinced him that the Earth isn’t the center of the cosmos. Jupiter has 67 moons in all, though only 4 are within range of modest sized telescopes… Even 5th place runner up Himalia is a challenge near the dazzling disk of Jove at +14th magnitude.

Also watch for a phenomenon known as the Seeliger or Opposition Effect, a sudden surge in brightness like a highway retro-reflector in the night.

Opposition 2015 finds Jupiter just across the Leo-Cancer border in the realm of the Crab. Jupiter crossed from Leo into Cancer on February 4th, and will head back into the constellation of the Lion on June 10th. Jupiter then spends the rest of 2015 in Leo and heads for another opposition next year on March 8th.

Jupiter will also make a dramatic pass just 24’ — less than the diameter of the Full Moon — from Regulus on August 11th, though both are only 11.5 degrees east of the Sun in the dusk sky. Jupiter also forms a 1 degree circle with Regulus, Mercury and Jupiter 14.5 degrees east of the Sun on August 7th.

Jupiter reaches a maximum declination north for 2015 on April 7th at 18 degrees above the celestial equator. We’re still in a favorable cycle of oppositions for Jupiter for northern hemisphere viewers, as the gas giant doesn’t plunge south of the equator until September 2016.

Looking farther ahead, Jupiter reaches east quadrature on May 4th, and sits 90 degrees elongation from the Sun as the planet and its moons cast their shadows far off to the side from our Earthly perspective. We’re still also in the midst of a plane crossing: February 5th is actually equinox season on Jupiter! This also means that there’s still a cycle of mutual eclipses and occultations of the Jovian moons in progress. One such complex ballet includes (moons) on the night of February 26th.

February 26th. Starry Night
The close grouping of Io, Callisto and Ganymede on the night of February 26th. Created using Starry Night Education software.

And yes, it is possible to see the Earth transit the disk of the Sun from Jove’s vantage point. This last occurred in 2014, and will next occur in 2020.

But wait, there’s more. Jupiter also makes a thrilling pass near Venus on July 1st, when the two sit just 0.4 degrees apart. We fully expect a spike in “what are those two bright stars?” queries right around that date, though hopefully, the conjunction won’t spark any regional conflicts.

Stellarium
Jupiter, Regulus and the rising waning gibbous Moon on the evening of February 4th. Credit: Stellarium.

Solar conjunction for Jupiter then occurs on August 26th, with the planet visible in the Solar Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) LASCO C3 camera from August 16th to September 6th.

Emerging into the dawn sky, Jupiter then passes 0.4 degrees from Mars on October 17th and has another 1.1 degree tryst with Venus on October 26th.

Looking for Jupiter in the daytime near the waxing gibbous Moon. Credit: Stellarium.
Looking for Jupiter in the daytime near the waxing gibbous Moon. Credit: Stellarium.

Let the Jovian observing season begin!

-Wonder what a gang of rogue space clowns is doing at Jupiter? Read Dave Dickinson’s original tale Helium Party and find out!

Watch: An Amazing, Mesmerizing Full Rotation of Jupiter

Jupiter as imaged by Michael Phillips on July 25th, 2009... note the impact scar discovered by Anthony Wesley to the lower left.

Jupiter is a happening place in the solar system. While bashful Mars only puts on a good show once every two year opposition period, and inner worlds such as Mercury and Venus yield no surface details to backyard observers at all, the cloud tops of Jupiter display a wealth of changing detail in even modest backyard telescopes.

And this month is a great time to start observing Jupiter, as the largest planet in our solar system just passed opposition on January 5th. Recently, veteran astrophotographer Michael Phillips amazed us here at Universe Today once again with a stunning time-lapse sequence of Jupiter and its moons Ganymede and Io. Now, he’s outdone himself with a new full rotation compilation of the gas giant planet.

The capture is simply mesmerizing to sit and watch. At 9.9 hours, Jupiter has the fastest rotational period of any planet in our solar system. In fact, with Jupiter currently visible low to the east at sunset, it’s possible to follow it through one rotation in the span of a single long January winter night.

We caught up with Michael recently and asked him about this amazing capture. The sequence was actually accomplished over the span of five successive evenings. This made it challenging to stitch together using a sophisticated program known as WINJupos.

“While this is possible on a long winter night when it is darker longer, I typically find it easier to do over multiple nights than one long sleepless night,” Michael told Universe Today. “If you wait too many days between observations, the features will change significantly, and then two nights will not match up clearly. The seams that result from using multiple nights are tricky to stick together. I created multiple non-overlapping seams and tried to blend them out against one another as layers in my image editing software. The result is smoother, but not quite the same as a single observation.”

A 14” f/4.5 Newtonian reflecting telescope was used for the captures. “Similar weather conditions and camera settings help quite a bit to make the multiple nights’ segments match up better,” Michael noted. “Keeping the same settings, using the same location away from my house  in the corner of the yard (to reduce local atmospheric turbulence) night after night gives consistent results after removing the variability of the weather.”

Planetary photography also requires special considerations prior to imaging, such as getting Jupiter high enough in the sky and at specific longitudes to get full coverage in the rotation sequence.

“I try to consider the local weather patterns and atmospheric stability (seeing), but in reality, I pushed myself to get out as much and often as I could,” Michael told Universe Today. “Typically, I try to wait until Jupiter is at the highest in the sky, as the result is looking through less atmosphere and thus more stable conditions. Sometimes, the planets jiggle around and you just want to scream ‘SIT STILL!’ Basically around the time of opposition I go out as often as it’s clear, as those are opportunities that you don’t get back again until next year.”

Jupiter reaches opposition just over once every 13 months, moving roughly one constellation eastward each time. 2013 was an “oppositionless” year for Jupiter, which won’t occur again until 2025. Michael also notes that from his observing location at 35 degrees north latitude, Jupiter currently peaks at an altitude of 77 degrees above the horizon when it transits the local meridian. “I wasn’t going to squander it waiting for perfect conditions!”

In fact, Jupiter is currently in a region in the astronomical constellation of Gemini that will be occupied by the Sun in just over five months time during the June Solstice. Currently at a declination of around 22 degrees 45’ north, Jupiter won’t appear this high in the northern sky near opposition again until 2026.

It’s also amazing to consider the kind of results that backyard observers like Michael Phillips are now routinely accomplishing. It’s an interesting exercise to compare Michael’s capture side-by-side with a sequence captured  by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during its 2006 flyby of Jupiter:

Both sequences capture a wealth of detail, including the enormous Great Red Spot, the Northern and Southern Equatorial Belts, and numerous white spots and smaller swirls and eddies in the Jovian atmosphere.

To date, six spacecraft (Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyagers 1 and 2, New Horizons and Cassini) have made flybys of Jupiter, and one, Galileo, orbited the planet until its demise in 2003. Juno is the next in this legacy, and will be inserted into orbit around Jupiter in July 2016.

Now is the time to get out and observe and image Jupiter and its moons, as it moves higher into the sky on successive evenings towards eastern quadrature on April 1st, 2014.

Congrats to Michael Phillips on an amazing sequence!

‘Tis the Season to Spot Jupiter: A Guide to the 2014 Opposition

Lovers of planetary action rejoice; the king of the planets is returning to the evening skies.

One of the very first notable astronomical events for 2014 occurs on January 5th, when the planet Jupiter reaches opposition. You can already catch site of Jove in late December, rising in the east about an hour after local sunset. And while Venus will be dropping faster than the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve to the west in early 2014, Jupiter will begin to dominate the evening planetary action.

Orbiting the Sun once every 11.9 years, oppositions of Jupiter occur about once every 13 months or about 400 days, as the speedy Earth overtakes the gas giant on the inside track. This means that successive oppositions of the planet move roughly one astronomical constellation eastward. In fact, this year’s opposition is it’s northernmost in 12 years, occurring in the constellation Gemini. “Opposition” means that an outer planet is rising “opposite” to the setting Sun. As this opposition of Jupiter occurs just weeks after the southward solstice, Jupiter now lies in the direction that the Sun will occupy six months from now during the June Solstice.

This all means that Jupiter will ride high in the sky for northern hemisphere observers towards local midnight, a boon for astrophotographers looking to catch the planet high in the sky and out of the low horizon murk.

Jupiter will reach its most northern point for 2014 at a declination of +23.3 degrees on March 11th.

Jupiter also “skipped” 2013, in the sense that it was an “oppositionless year” for the giant world, as said 13 month span fell juuusst right, first on December 2nd, 2012 and then on January 5th, 2014. The next opposition of Jupiter will occur on… you guessed it… February 6th, 2015. The last year missing an opposition of Jupiter was 2001.

Jupiter and Io (arrowed) as imaged on the evening of December 22nd, 2013 by the author.
Jupiter and Io (arrowed) as imaged on the evening of December 22nd, 2013 by the author.

The exact timing of Jupiter’s opposition to the Sun in right ascension occurs at 21:00 UT/4:00 PM EST on January 5th. Its closest approach to Earth, however, arrives 27 hours prior, owing to a slight outward curvature of the approach of the two worlds. Jupiter will then lie about 4.21 astronomical units (AUs) or 629 million kilometres distant. This is just about down the middle of how close it can pass; Jupiter was just under 4 AUs distant in September 2010, and can pass almost 4.5 AUs from Earth, as happened in April 2005.

Jupiter also reaches a maximum brightness of magnitude -2.7 at opposition in 2014 and presents a disk 46.8” arc seconds wide. The coming month also provides a great chance to catch Jupiter in the daytime sky just before sunset, when the waxing gibbous Moon passes 4.9 degrees south of the planet on the evening of January 14th.

The Moon and Jupiter on the evening of January 14th shortly before sunset. (Created by the Author using Stellarium).
The Moon and Jupiter on the evening of January 14th shortly before sunset. (Created by the Author using Stellarium).

The very first thing you’ll notice looking at Jupiter, even at low power with binoculars or a telescope, is it retinue of moons. Though the planet has 67 discovered moons and counting, only the four large Galilean moons of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto are readily apparent in a telescope. It’s fun to see orbital mechanics in action and watch them from night to night as they change position, just as Galileo first did over four centuries ago. This provided him with evidence that there is much more to universe than meets the eye, though we can consider ourselves fortunate that his proposal to name them the “Medician Moons” after his Medici benefactors was never widely adopted.

Crank up the magnification, and you’ll notice the large twin stripes of the northern and southern equatorial cloud belts crossing the disk of Jupiter. While the northern belt is stable, the southern belt has been known to submerge and disappear from view about every decade or so, as last happened in 2009-2010. You’ll also notice the Great Red Spot, a massive storm system over three times larger than the Earth that has been tracked by astronomers since it was recorded by Samuel Schwabe in 1831. The planet has the fastest rotation of any world in our solar system at 9.9 hours, and you’ll notice this swift rotation tracking Jupiter over the course of a single evening.

Transits and occultations of Jupiter’s moons are also always interesting to watch. The variation in the timing of these events at differing distances led Danish astronomer Ole Rømer to make the first attempts at measuring the speed of light in 1676.

Europa just beginning to cast a shadow off to one side shortly after opposition on January 8th at 7:30PM EST. (Created by the author using Stellarium).
Europa just beginning to cast a shadow off to one side shortly after opposition on January 8th at 7:30 PM EST. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

It’s interesting to note that Jupiter and its moons cast a shadow nearly straight back from our line of sight around opposition. You can see this change as the planet heads towards quadrature on April 1st, 2014 and Jupiter and its moons cast shadows off to one side. We’re also in the midst of a plane crossing, as the orbits of the Jovian moons appear edge-on to our line of sight in 2014 headed into early 2015. The outermost Jovian moon Callisto began a series of transits in 2013 and will continue to do so through 2014.

This is a great time to begin following all of the Jovian action, as we head into another exciting year of astronomy!