This weekend I got to experience the dark skies over a nameless lake somewhere between Grand Forks, North Dakota and Bemidji, Minnesota. It was my first time seeing the faint band of our own Milky Way. But we had our telescope pointed on something we could have seen just as easily from a second-floor studio flat: Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system.
Jupiter is in opposition today, meaning it’s exactly opposite the sun in the sky, like the Moon when it’s full. The gas giant will be brighter than any star in the sky. I was able to see the bands of gas and dust and the four brightest moons, Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, and Io, with a small telescope. Two of the moons were even visible from my flat with my budget binoculars (these guys).
You should look at it.
The planet will actually be closest to Earth on 10 May, according to EarthSky.com. The opposition doesn’t line up with the closest approach because the two planets’ orbits aren’t perfect circles in perfect alignment.
Not only will it be super bright, but Jupiter is the planet du jour for space science. The Juno mission continues to orbit and return both stunning pictures and interesting new results, like the behaviour of the planet’s jets streams beneath its cloud tops.
As of now, the Juno spacecraft budget only has it in operation until July. After that, it’s either death at the hands of the planet’s gas and gravity, or a budget extension.
As long as you’re looking for Jupiter tonight, you might as well point your binoculars at the quarter Moon to catch a closeup of the sun setting on the craters. Just before sunrise, you can even see red Mars or Saturn and its rings.
This has been your regular reminder that you need not rely on NASA for beautiful views of space. You can always look at it yourself.