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Spot the King of Planets: Observe Jupiter

By David Prosper

Jupiter is our solar system’s undisputed king of the planets! Jupiter is bright and easy to spot from our vantage point on Earth, helped by its massive size and banded, reflective cloud tops. Jupiter even possesses moons the size of planets: Ganymede, its largest, is bigger than the planet Mercury. What’s more, you can easily observe Jupiter and its moons with a modest instrument, just like Galileo did over 400 years ago.

Jupiter’s position as our solar system’s largest planet is truly earned; you could fit 11 Earths along Jupiter’s diameter, and in case you were looking to fill up Jupiter with some Earth-size marbles, you would need over 1300 Earths to fill it up – and that would still not be quite enough! However, despite its awesome size, Jupiter’s true rule over the outer solar system comes from its enormous mass. If you took all of the planets in our solar system and put them together they would still only be half as massive as Jupiter all by itself. Jupiter’s mighty mass has shaped the orbits of countless comets and asteroids. Its gravity can fling these tiny objects towards our inner solar system and also draw them into itself, as famously observed in 1994 when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, drawn towards Jupiter in previous orbits, smashed into the gas giant’s atmosphere. Its multiple fragments slammed into Jupiter’s cloud tops with such violence that the fireballs and dark impact spots were not only seen by NASA’s orbiting Galileo probe, but also observers back on Earth!

Jupiter is easy to observe at night with our unaided eyes, as well-documented by the ancient astronomers who carefully recorded its slow movements from night to night. It can be one of the brightest objects in our nighttime skies, bested only by the Moon, Venus, and occasionally Mars, when the red planet is at opposition. That’s impressive for a planet that, at its closest to Earth, is still over 365 million miles (587 million km) away. It’s even more impressive that the giant world remains very bright to Earthbound observers at its furthest distance: 600 million miles (968 million km)! While the King of Planets has a coterie of around 75 known moons, only the four large moons that Galileo originally observed in 1610 – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Calisto – can be easily observed by Earth-based observers with very modest equipment. These are called, appropriately enough, the Galilean moons. Most telescopes will show the moons as faint star-like objects neatly lined up close to bright Jupiter. Most binoculars will show at least one or two moons orbiting the planet. Small telescopes will show all four of the Galilean moons if they are all visible, but sometimes they can pass behind or in front of Jupiter, or even each other. Telescopes will also show details like Jupiter’s cloud bands and, if powerful enough, large storms like its famous Great Red Spot, and the shadows of the Galilean moons passing between the Sun and Jupiter. Sketching the positions of Jupiter’s moons during the course of an evening - and night to night – can be a rewarding project! You can download an activity guide from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific at bit.ly/drawjupitermoons

NASA’s Juno mission currently orbits Jupiter, one of just nine spacecraft to have visited this awesome world. Juno entered Jupiter’s orbit in 2016 to begin its initial mission to study this giant world’s mysterious interior. The years have proven Juno’s mission a success, with data from the probe revolutionizing our understanding of this gassy world’s guts. Juno’s mission has since been extended to include the study of its large moons, and since 2021 the plucky probe, increasingly battered by Jupiter’s powerful radiation belts, has made close flybys of the icy moons Ganymede and Europa, along with volcanic Io. In 2024 NASA will launch the Europa Clipper mission to study this world and its potential to host life inside its deep subsurface oceans in much more detail. Find the latest discoveries from Juno and NASA’s missions at nasa.gov.

This stunning image of Jupiter’s cloud tops was taken by NASA’s Juno mission and processed by Kevin M. Gill. You too can create amazing images like this, all with publicly available data from Juno. Go to missionjuno.swri.edu/junocam to begin your image procession journey – and get creative!
Full Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS; Processing: Kevin M. Gill, license: CC BY 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ Source: https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap201123.html

Look for Jupiter as it forms one of the points of a celestial triangle, along with Venus and a very thin crescent Moon, the evening of February 22, 2023. This trio consists of the brightest objects in the sky – until the Sun rises! Binoculars may help you spot Jupiter’s moons as small bright star-like objects on either side of the planet. A small telescope will show them easily, along with Jupiter’s famed cloud bands. How many can you count? Keep watching Jupiter and Venus as the two planets will continue to get closer together each night until they form a close conjunction the night of March 1. Image created with assistance from Stellarium.

For more information and activities visit: spaceplace.nasa.gov and nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov