Jupiter is the brightest celestial object right now in the night sky, and for the next few days, it will move along its 12-year orbit until it reaches “opposition” on Sept. 26.
On that evening, the sun, Earth and Jupiter will line up, making the gas giant the closest it’s been to our planet in nearly 60 years. It will be so bright and near that it can be seen with the naked eye — even in the light-polluted heavens above New York City — as it rises from the southeast. Jupiter won’t be this close again for another 107 years, until 2129.
Also in the evening ensemble this month is the Beehive Cluster, a cloud of about 1,000 shiny young stars. They’re only 600 million years old compared to our sun’s 4.6 billion years.
“Other than the moon, there’s nothing in the sky as bright as Jupiter. You can’t miss it,” said Bart Fried, executive vice president of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. “It’ll just stand out like a sore thumb.”
The night after its opposition, Jupiter will begin to move farther away, appearing smaller and less bright. Until then, the planet will look like “an airplane that’s not moving,” according to Fried.
For the best views, New York City star watchers can go to big, open recreational areas such as Central Park or Carl Schurz Park in Manhattan, and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. Areas along the rivers also afford good opportunities for spotting the fifth planet from the sun.
“It will rise in the southeast like an orange star,” Fried said.
With a pair of binoculars, Jupiter will look like a small disc with four shiny objects near it like silver pinpoints. Those are its four brightest moons, also called the Galilean moons, named for the astronomer from Florence, Italy who first recorded the sight more than 400 years ago.
“It’ll look like a little solar system,” Fried said.
The largest planet in our solar system has 79 moons — 26 of them have no names. With a telescope, the Galilean moons will look like bright discs. When they orbit, the moons pass in front of Jupiter, casting their shadows on the planet’s surface as they move. This is called a shadow transit.
“What you’re watching is what Galileo watched really for the first time before anybody and noticed that these stars were following Jupiter,” Fried said.
A telescope will also allow sky gazers to see the bands in Jupiter’s atmosphere and its Great Red Spot, just south of its equator. Catching a glimpse of its red spot — a massive cyclone twice as wide as Earth with 400 mile per hour winds — will require luck or planning.
The planet rotates every 10 hours, which means the spot might not be visible when night falls. Sky and Telescope magazine makes an app that can predict the visibility of the red spot and the moon transits.
More than 200 million light years farther away but still highly visible is the Beehive Cluster, a bright collection of stars. In the metro area, a pair of binoculars is needed to get a good look. Fried said the view is more “spectacular” with a telescope.
The Amateur Astronomers Association will host free public telescope viewings on Friday, Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. at Brooklyn Bridge Park and Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza. On that evening, the Great Red Spot will be visible from approximately 9:45 p.m. until 12:45 a.m.
“If you have a telescope and you look at it [Jupiter], it’ll sort of speak for itself because it’ll be so large,” Fried said.