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!