While daytime headlines were dominated today by disaster movie-themed stories of asteroid crashes and planetary defense tests, amateur astronomers and city slicker stargazers actually get a celestial two-for-one tonight: Jupiter will appear extraordinarily large and bright in the night sky as two astronomical events converge.
The gas giant will reach opposition — directly opposite the sun with the Earth in between — and it will also be at its closest point to Earth since 1963, according to NASA.
From the viewpoint of Earth’s surface, opposition happens when an astronomical object rises in the east as the Sun sets in the west, placing the object and the Sun on opposite sides of Earth. Jupiter’s opposition occurs every 13 months, making the planet appear larger and brighter than any other time of the year.
Additionally, Jupiter is making its closest approach to Earth since 1963. NASA explains this is because Earth and Jupiter do not orbit the Sun in perfect circles — meaning the planets will pass each other at different distances throughout the year. Jupiter’s closest approach to Earth rarely coincides with opposition, which means this year’s views will be extraordinary.
At its closest approach, Jupiter will be approximately 367 million miles in distance from Earth, about the same distance it was in 1963. The gas giant is approximately 600 million miles away from Earth at its farthest point.
So how can you spot Jupiter in tonight’s sky? According to EarthSky.org, look for Jupiter in the eastern sky in the evening after sunset (6:44 p.m. in Long Beach tonight) — the planet will be brighter than any star. You might also pick out the Great Square of the constellation Pegasus, a large square pattern in the sky with four medium-bright stars marking the corners.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists that in Long Beach, Jupiter will start to rise in the eastern sky at 6:43 p.m., reach its peak meridian at 12:49 a.m. and set in the west at 6:50 a.m. tomorrow morning.