How to See Jupiter in All Its Glory

May 10, 2018

Throughout May, the gas giant will be close to Earth and visible all night long.

Jupiter is always in the sky, of course, but sometimes it’s especially dazzling.

It takes the gas giant 12 years to wend its way around the sun. At this point in its orbit, it is at opposition—the position where it is closest to Earth, on the side farthest from the sun. (“Close” is relative, though: Even when Jupiter appears to be in our celestial neighborhood, it’s still 410 million miles from us.) Jupiter is among the brightest objects in the sky, and if you plan to attempt a close-up look at the planet this year, this week will yield particularly stunning views.

When to look

Your ideal viewing window depends on where you are, and what may be blocking your view of the horizon. Bright lights won’t dampen it much. “Even in the worst light-polluted city in the United States, you will see Jupiter,” says Michelle Nichols, director of public observing at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.

The bigger concern is a horizon line chewed up by buildings or trees. The fewer structures blocking your sightline, the earlier you’ll see Jupiter. In a city, skyscrapers may limit your view until after midnight, when the planet rises above them. At its highest, Jupiter will be about 33° in altitude when it is due south, says Peter Tagatac, president of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. Using a body as a calculation device, 33° is roughly “three fists with capped thumb at arm distance above the horizon.” Jupiter will be most visible when it climbs 20° or greater above the horizon, says Tagatac. Today, that’s about 10 p.m. EST; as the month progresses, it will be a little earlier each day.

What you’ll need

The planet will be visible all night, and when you do scan the sky, you’ll be able to glimpse it with the naked eye. “There’s no mistaking it,” says Nichols. Look southeast: Jupiter will be the bright dot. One way to differentiate Jupiter from stars is by the extent to which they appear to flicker. Jupiter is closer to us than many stars are, and even though it also reflects light from the sun, it’s brighter, steadier, and less affected by gusts or other fluctuations in the atmosphere. “If it’s really windy and the air is turbulent, you might see some twinkling, but you’d notice that stars are twinkling a lot more,” Nichols says.

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