What’s Up With Jupiter This Month?

It’s been all over the news the past few weeks- “Jupiter is About to Be So Close, You Can See Its Moons”, “Jupiter Comes Close to Earth in June 2019” But what does this all mean? Will the night sky look different this month?

“It really is a great time to see (Jupiter), as it will appear biggest and brightest for the year,” said Dr. Chris Palma, a faculty member in Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State. “Unfortunately, the sites quoting this article from NASA are blowing it out of proportion, like they do with the “SuperMoon” stories. One article I saw on Google News was saying “Jupiter will be so bright you can see its moons without a telescope.” They mean you can see them through binoculars, which technically is without a telescope, but they don’t mean with the unaided eye, which is how I think most folks will interpret that headline. So don’t fall for the hype! Jupiter will look awesome, and you should go out and see it, but it is nothing out of the ordinary compared to a typical opposition of Jupiter, which happens roughly once per year.”

He went on to add, “Some articles say that “It is so bright you can see the moons with only binoculars” as if that is not usually possible. You can always see the Galilean moons with binoculars!”

The reason why Jupiter is so brilliant in the sky this month is that Jupiter reaches opposition on June 10. This is when Jupiter, Earth, and the Sun are arranged in a straight line as shown below. It occurs approximately once per Earth year on a specific date. The weeks around opposition are really the best time of the year to see Jupiter, as the planet is visible in the sky for the entire night. It is also the time when Jupiter is closest to Earth.

Simplified image of Jupiter at opposition. Note that the image is NOT to scale and is missing many objects in our Solar System, but it does show the relative positions of the Sun, Earth, and Jupiter.

During opposition, Jupiter will rise at dusk in the southeastern sky (northeastern if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere), and will stay visible in the sky until dawn. If you’re having trouble finding it, try downloading a stargazing app on your smartphone (SkyView Free, Night Sky, or Sky Safari all have free versions) to help guide you.

If you’re wondering what you’ll see with binoculars, check out this Astronomy Picture of the Day from May 23, 2019, which shows Jupiter and some of its moons taken with a camera with a telephoto lens.

And if the weather isn’t cooperating this week and you don’t get to see Jupiter’s moons, don’t panic! Remember that they’re always visible with binoculars, so get out and enjoy the wonders of the night sky whenever you can.