For any stargazers pining for a glimpse at Jupiter, tonight is the night to break out the telescope. Earth is just about to pass directly between Jupiter and the sun, making this the brightest that the gas giant will glow in the night sky for the entire year.
Starting at 6 AM on March 8, Jupiter will directly oppose the sun, appearing to rise as the sun sets. So as long as skies are clear, the planet will show off its sparkling face after nightfall and will continue to be easily spotted from dusk till dawn for several days. At its peak, the giant planet will appear brighter than any other stars and the second-brightest planet after Venus.
Jupiter will also be at its closest tonight, meaning even those without telescopes can get a great view, Geoff Gaherty writes for Space.com. To find it, just look for Leo. Right now, Jupiter lingers in the southern regions of the constellation, shining nearly 30 times brighter than the nearby star Regulus, Deborah Byrd writes for EarthSky.org.
If Jupiter alone isn't enough of a treat, its moons should provide plenty of entertainment. Upwards of 60 different moons orbit the gas giant, but are usually too tiny to spot with the naked eye. The four largest moons (Io, Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa) are visible alongside Jupiter even with just a set of binoculars. First observed by Galileo Galilei in 1610, the four moons, which are known as the “Galilean Moons,” are some of the solar system’s most intriguing objects.
According to NASA, Io is the most volcanically active object in our solar system, and is shrouded in thick clouds of multicolored sulfur. Europa, on the other hand, is cloaked by a thick sheet of ice, which astronomers believe may cover a massive ocean of liquid water or slushy ice—a potential spot for lurking life.
Callisto has the oldest landscape in the solar system and is riddled with craters that can provide astronomers with a physical record of our planetary system's earliest days. Meanwhile Io is the largest moon in our solar system and is the only one that generates its own magnetic field.
With a small telescope aimed at the sky, eagle-eyed viewers can watch as the four moons zip through their orbits around the giant planet. On the night of March 14, almost week after Jupiter enters opposition, stargazers will get a chance to see Europa and Io transit in between Jupiter and the Earth, with Europa beginning its journey at 9:27 P.M. EST, and Io following shortly after at 10:12 P.M, according to Astronomy Magazine.
Although Jupiter enters opposition once a year, the exact timing varies because of differences between Earth’s orbit and the gas giant’s. It takes about 13 months for the Earth to get back in position between Jupiter and the sun, which means that each year opposition occurs a month later than the year before.
So cross your fingers for a clear night and point your eyes to the skies to catch Jupiter shining bright.