What’s That Brilliant Bright ‘Star’ High In The Southeast After Sunset?

By Jamie Carter, Contributor
Panoramic night sky and meteor impact over Castelluccio di Norcia highlands, Italy. The Milky Way galaxy arc and stars over illuminated village unique hills landscape. Jupiter planet visible. getty

If you’ve been outside during dusk and beyond this week—and you’ve had the pleasure of a clear sky—you’ll have probably noticed an impressively bright “star” in the southeastern night sky.

In fact, it’s not a star at all, but the giant gas planet Jupiter—the fifth planet from our Sun—which the NASA spacecraft Juno just sent back more stunning close-up photos of.  

Why is it so bright? And why haven’t you noticed it until now? Here’s everything you need to know—and how to see its incredible moons.

Jupiter is just past its annual ‘opposition’

Opposition is the point in space and time each year when the Earth is positioned between Jupiter and the Sun in the Solar System. It happened on August 19, 2021, and for a few weeks either side of that date the planet shines at its brightest—it’s now a whopping -2.6 magnitude.

It’s currently in the constellation of Aquarius, the water bearer. 

Jupiter is well-positioned to be noticed

When it’s at opposition Jupiter (and all other outer planets, when it’s their turn once each year) rise at sunset in the east and sink in the west at sunrise. However, on the date of their opposition that means Jupiter was fairly low in the sky, so harder to see until about an hour after sunset.

Since everything in the night sky rises in the east about four minutes earlier each night, Jupiter is slightly higher in the sky with each passing night.

So it’s ideally positioned right now—and for the next few weeks—to be very bright and easily noticed by anyone who happens to be outside during dusk.

Why Jupiter appears to be so bright

Since the moment of opposition sees Earth positioned between Jupiter and the Sun, it’s by definition not only the closest we get to the giant planet, but also a time when we see its full disk, fully illuminated by the Sun. The geometry of opposition is a little like a full Moon.

Though we’re now a few weeks past opposition, Jupiter is tonight 99.8%-lit by the Sun.

Jupiter is also massive. It’s twice as massive as all of the other planets in the Solar System combined.

The positions of Jupiter and Saturn in the southeastern sky tonight at sunset—Friday September 10, 2021. Stellarium

How to find Saturn close to Jupiter

Look slightly to the south of Jupiter and you’ll see another planet—Saturn. The “ringed planet,” the sixth planet from the Sun, is nowhere near as bright as Jupiter. If you have a small telescope you’ll be able to glimpse its rings.

Saturn went into opposition on August 2, 2021, so it’s still relatively bright and well-placed for observation.

It’s currently in the constellation of Capricorn.

How far away is Jupiter?

Jupiter orbits the Sun (or, rather, a common barycenter) from around 483 million miles/778 million kilometers, which is about five times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Since Earth orbits the Sun much faster the distance between Earth and Jupiter is always changing.

During the recent opposition we got to within 376 million miles/606 million kilometers—about four times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. A few weeks later, as I write this, we’re 379 million miles/611 million kilometers away.

However, come March 5, 2022—when Jupiter will appear to go behind the Sun from our point of view (and therefore the furthest we get from it since we’ll be on the opposite side of the Solar System)—it will be a whopping 554 million miles/893 million kilometers distant.

Jupiter with three of its four Galilean moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto photographed on June 26, 2019 with a small refractor telescope from Mannheim in Germany. getty

How to see Jupiter’s moons

Any pair of binoculars with 7x or 10x magnification will give you excellent views of its four Galilean moons—Ganymede, Europa, Callisto and Io. These four largest of Jupiter’s 79 moons are known as the Galilean satellites because they were first spotted by the astronomer Galileo Galilei from Italy in 1610.

When is the next ‘opposition’ of Jupiter?

Since Jupiter takes 12 Earth-years to orbit the Sun, Jupiter’s opposition is roughly a month later each year as seen from Earth. Jupiter will next go into opposition on September 26, 2022.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.


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