May is a great month for stargazing with a host of celestial events happening in the morning and evening skies.
On May 17, a slim crescent moon will rise about an hour before the Sun. From much of the United States and Canada, you’ll be able to see Jupiter appearing very close to the Moon. In some southern U.S. states, Jupiter will pass behind the Moon as the pair rises in morning twilight. From western states, Jupiter will be behind the Moon, in occultation, as the duo rise. Jupiter will start to emerge from behind the Moon as the Sun comes up. To observe this event, you’ll need a clear view of the horizon, and a pair of binoculars will be essential as many locations in the U.S. will be in daylight during this occultation.
Following sunset from May 22 through 24, you’ll be able to witness a close grouping of the Moon, Venus, and Mars in the western sky. The Moon will sit between the two planets on the 23rd. Venus has been rising higher in the sky each evening for the past few months, but in May, it’ll reach its highest point in the western sky.
For those stargazing from the Southern Hemisphere, there are some key differences in the night sky compared to the Northern Hemisphere. For instance, there’s no counterpart to the North Star in the Southern Hemisphere, and the seasonal star patterns that a northern observer are familiar with appear flipped upside down when viewed in southern skies.
Two entire galaxies, the large and small Magellanic Clouds, can be easily observed in the southern sky with the unaided eye. These are dwarf galaxies that orbit our own Milky Way galaxy.
Stargazers can expect excellent views of Jupiter the entire night of Monday, Sept. 26 when the giant planet reaches opposition. From the viewpoint of Earth’s surface, opposition happens when an astronomical object rises in the east as the Sun sets in the west, placing the object and the Sun on opposite sides of Earth.
Jupiter’s opposition occurs every 13 months, making the planet appear larger and brighter than any other time of the year. But that’s not all. Jupiter will also make its closest approach to Earth since 1963 – almost six decades ago! This happens because Earth and Jupiter do not orbit the Sun in perfect circles – meaning the planets will pass each other at different distances throughout the year. Jupiter’s closest approach to Earth rarely coincides with opposition, which means this year’s views will be extraordinary. At its closest approach, Jupiter will be approximately 367 million miles in distance from Earth, about the same distance it was in 1963. The massive planet is approximately 600 million miles away from Earth at its farthest point.
“With good binoculars, the banding (at least the central band) and three or four of the Galilean satellites (moons) should be visible,” said Adam Kobelski, a research astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “It’s important to remember that Galileo observed these moons with 17th century optics. One of the key needs will be a stable mount for whatever system you use.”
Kobelski recommends a larger telescope to see Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and bands in more detail; a 4 inch-or-larger telescope and some filters in the green to blue range would enhance the visibility of these features.
According to Kobelski, an ideal viewing location will be at a high elevation in a dark and dry area.
“The views should be great for a few days before and after Sept. 26,” Kobelski said. “So, take advantage of good weather on either side of this date to take in the sight. Outside of the Moon, it should be one of the (if not the) brightest objects in the night sky.”
Jupiter has 53 named moons, but scientists believe that 79 moons have been detected in total. The four largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, are called the Galilean satellites. They are named after the man who first observed them in 1610, Galileo Galilei. In binoculars or a telescope, the Galilean satellites should appear as bright dots on either side of Jupiter during opposition.
NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which has been orbiting Jupiter for six years, is dedicated to exploring the planet and its moons. Juno began its journey in 2011 and reached Jupiter five years later. Since 2016, the spacecraft has provided incredible images and data about Jupiter’s lively atmosphere, interior structures, internal magnetic field, and magnetosphere.
Scientists believe studying Jupiter can lead to breakthrough discoveries about the formation of the solar system. Juno’s mission was recently extended until 2025 or until the end of the spacecraft’s life. Learn more about Juno.
The next major project for Jupiter exploration is the Europa Clipper. This spacecraft will explore Jupiter’s iconic moon, Europa, which is known for its icy shell and vast ocean that lies beneath its surface. NASA scientists aim to find whether Europa has conditions able to sustain life. Europa Clipper’s targeted launch is currently scheduled for no earlier than October 2024.
Skywatchers, you have the opportunity to see not just one, but two planetary conjunctions during the month of April 2022!
A conjunction is a celestial event in which two planets, a planet and the Moon, or a planet and a star appear close together in Earth’s night sky. Conjunctions have no profound astronomical significance, but they are nice to view. In our Solar System, conjunctions occur frequently between planets because the planets orbit around the Sun in approximately the same plane – the ecliptic plane – and thus trace similar paths across our sky.
The first planetary meet up occurs on the mornings of April 4 and 5 before sunrise and includes Mars and Saturn, with Saturn being the brightest. These two planets will come together, appearing as almost a single point of light. However, if you grab your binoculars, you’ll easily see the scene with the planets switching positions on each morning.
We will also see a bright Jupiter ascend quickly in the morning twilight, heading towards Venus in the final week of April. Catch a great view of the planets on the morning of April 27, which will include a waxing Moon.
Jupiter and Venus will then meet in conjunction during the morning of April 30 – appearing to nearly collide into each other. Due to the glare from both planets, observers will see them merge into one very bright, spectacular glow!
Venus’s orbit is closer to the Sun than the Earth’s, and Jupiter’s orbit is much farther away, so the proximity is an illusion, occurring only because Earth, Venus, and Jupiter happen to be approximately aligned. This celestial event will continue on the morning of May 1, but the positions of the planets, Jupiter and Venus, will be reversed.
If you want to know what else is in the sky for April, check out the latest “What’s Up” video from Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
Enjoy all this month has to offer as you watch the skies!
Stargazers get ready for a nice treat as we are about to witness a super-rare planetary alignment not seen for almost 800 years!
Our solar system’s two biggest worlds – the mighty Jupiter followed by the glorious ringed Saturn – will appear in the sky next to each other at their closest since 1623 and closest visible from Earth since the Middle Ages in 1226. This will happen on Dec. 21, 2020, during an event called a “great conjunction.”
Astronomers use the word conjunction to describe close approaches of planets and other objects on our sky’s dome. They use great conjunction specifically for Jupiter and Saturn because of the planets’ top-ranking sizes.
Great conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn happen every 20 years, making the planets appear to be close to one another. This closeness occurs because Jupiter orbits the Sun every 12 years, while Saturn’s orbit takes 30 years, causing Jupiter to catch up to Saturn every couple of decades as viewed from Earth.
The last conjuction between these planets took place on May 28, 2000. This year’s conjunction occurs on Dec. 21, which coincidentally is also the date of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. The 2020 conjunction is unique because of how close Jupiter and Saturn will appear. In most conjunctions, Jupiter and Saturn pass within a degree of each other. This year, they will pass 10 times closer to each other – the closest in nearly 400 years.
Currently, you can watch Jupiter and Saturn get closer in Earth’s sky each evening until their grand finale on Dec. 21. Just look for them shortly after sunset, shining brightly and low in the southwestern sky. Also, tune in to NASA Science Live or NASA Facebook on Dec. 17 at 3:00 p.m. EST (2:00 p.m. CST) and learn how to see Jupiter and Saturn’s great conjunction.
During the great conjunction, the giant planets will appear just a tenth of a degree apart – that’s about the thickness of a dime held at arm’s length! This means the two planets and their moons will be visible in the same field of view through a small telescope. Truly, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event!
Some astronomers suggest the pair will look like an elongated star and others say the two planets will form a double planet. To know for sure, we’ll just have to look and see. Either way, take advantage of this opportunity because Jupiter and Saturn won’t appear this close in the sky until 2080!
Additional Information & Resources:
› Learn how to photograph the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction.
› Read about mission visits to Jupiter and Saturn.
› Find an astronomy club or event near you!
In the month of December, stargazers get ready for some excitement in the sky! Catch the year’s best meteor shower, the Geminids, in the middle of the month. Then, witness an extremely close pairing of Jupiter and Saturn that won’t be repeated for decades. And mark the shortest day of the year on the northern winter solstice. Check out the video below produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to learn more!
Are you ready for November’s sky watching highlights? Cool autumn evenings are a great time to look for the Pleiades star cluster. You’ll also have a couple of great opportunities to observe the Moon with Jupiter and Saturn. Plus, check out the phenomenon known as Earthshine. Learn about all that and more from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s video below!
The graphic below illustrates the five planets as they are visible, with the naked eye, from Huntsville, Alabama. It shows their positions in the sky around 6:30 AM during the week of January 18 and continuing for the next few days. Mercury will be close to the Sun, over in the East, and Jupiter will be over in the West, with Venus, Saturn, and Mars between the two. Pluto is near Mercury, but is invisible to the eye, requiring a telescope for viewing.
The last time an alignment such as this occurred was about 10 years ago. This pre-sunrise configuration will be similar for other northern latitudes.
In the graphic, the yellow line is the ecliptic, which is the plane of the Earth’s orbit. The orbits of the major planets lie close to this plane, which is why they appear close to the ecliptic in the night sky.
On Tuesday, June 30, there will be a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. A conjunction is a celestial event in which two planets or a planet and the moon or a planet and a star appear close together in the night sky. Conjunctions have no real astronomical value, but they are nice to view. While conjunctions aren’t as rare as one might think, this conjunction of Jupiter and Venus will be more impressive than most.
The casual backyard observer may have noticed that these two planets have been moving closer together for the past few weeks. On June 30, they will be so close that one will be able to hold a finger up and cover both Jupiter and Venus at the same time. In reality, the planets are hundreds of millions of miles apart. On June 30, Venus is about 46 million miles from Earth, and Jupiter is 560 million miles from Earth. Looking up at the sky, Venus appears to be much brighter than Jupiter. That is only because Venus is so much closer to Earth. Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is actually over 11 times bigger than Venus, but it is dimmer when looking at the sky because of its great distance from our planet.
Typically the best conditions for stargazing involve a dark sky, so getting away from urban areas will make stars and faint objects like nebulae and galaxies more visible. The Jupiter and Venus conjunction will be easily bright enough to see from any location, even large cities. The best hours for viewing will be during evening twilight and up until 10:30 PM local time, when the planets will set behind the western horizon.
The skies were clear over New Mexico last night — Oct. 6, 2010 — so Rhiannon Blaauw of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., captured this image of Comet Hartley 2 at a distance of “only” about 14 million miles from Earth.
Hartley 2 has passed out of the constellation Cassiopeia and is now traveling through the constellation Perseus. On October 20th, the comet will come within 11 million miles of Earth. Since comets rarely come this close, it will be faintly visible to the naked eye in the early morning sky. The comet has an orbital period — or time to travel once around the sun — of approximately 6.5 years.
For those interested in astronomy photography, the image was taken with a single shot color filter with 300-second exposure via a remote-operated telescope located in Mayhill, N.M.
We’re tracking Hartley 2’s journey as it approaches Earth, so stay tuned for more photos!
Image courtesy of Rhiannon Blaauw, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
In this image taken on the evening of Friday, Oct. 1, Comet Hartley 2 can be seen in the constellation Cassiopeia (north-east sky, not far from horizon).
Hartley 2 will only be in Cassiopeia for a few more day before traveling through the constellation Perseus. It’s a Jupiter Family Comet that we can’t see right now because it’s too tiny at approximately 1.2 km across. In this image, the comet was still 16,500,000 miles from Earth.
On October 20th, Hartley 2 will will come within 11 million miles of Earth, and since comets rarely come this close, it will be visible to the naked eye in the early morning sky. The comet has an orbital period, or time to travel once around the sun, of approximately 6.5 years.
For those interested in astronomy photography, the image was taken with a single shot color filter with 300-second exposure. It was captured by Rhiannon Blaauw of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., via a remote-operated telescope in Mayhill, N.M.
We’ll be keeping an eye on Hartley 2 as it approaches Earth, so stay tuned for more photos!
Images courtesy of Rhiannon Blaauw, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.