Brash Jupiter finally has its day. Big and bright, the planet’s been easing up in the east earlier and earlier each night this winter. I’ve been watching it through my car window while driving home from work at dusk.
Jupiter reached opposition yesterday, when it beamed directly opposite the Sun in the sky. Like the full moon, the planet rose at sunset and remained visible all night, setting at sunrise. Opposition occurs when Earth and Jupiter line up on the same side of the Sun putting them closer together than at any other time of the year.
Skywatchers seize the time of opposition to regularly observe a planet; closeness equals greater brightness and also larger apparent size. And size is what we need to see the fascinating details that make these quivering disks come alive as real places.
This weekend, Jupiter’s chubby face will be 1.5 times larger than when viewed around solar conjunction on August 26th when the planet drops into the Sun’s glare in the western sky.
So what’s there to see? Lots! Jupiter is a meteorologist’s paradise, but you don’t have to be one to appreciate the planet’s changeable weather and balletic moons. Even binoculars will show a tiny disk, and if you look very closely, you’ll see up to four star-like points flanking either side of the planet. These are the four brightest moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto in order of increasing distance from Jupiter.
As they revolve about the planet, they create new arrangements every night. I’ve seen lots of eye-catching groupings with some of the most surprising symmetries over the years. And while I enjoy The Tonight Show, Jupiter’s moons are usually more entertaining. To find out where they are and what they’re up to any given night, check out Sky and Telescope’s Jupiter Moons Observing Tool.
Sometimes a moon will “disappear” when it passes in front of or behind the great planet. Other times, Jupiter’s shadow will eclipse a moon. This season, because Earth’s equator is aligned with Jupiter’s, we can even see the moons eclipse and occult one another in what astronomers call “mutual events”. For your observing pleasure, I’ve included a list of the best mutual events at the end of this article.
One of the most amazing discoveries I made some year back was that I could see Jupiter’s moons as actual disks, not just points. When the air is especially steady, power up to 150x or higher and look closely at each of the moons in a 6-inch or larger scope. In good seeing, each will show a minute disk with Ganymede clearly the largest of the four. One of them, Io, is colored orange from sulfur-laden lavas erupted from its interior that now coat the surface. Can you see the color?
With a small telescope and low magnification (40- 50x) two gray “tire tracks” rut the planet’s disk. These are the north and south equatorial belts, so called because they flank Jupiter’s equator. Higher power, steady air and a bit of stick-to-itiveness and you’ll also pick out the thinner stripes like the north and south temperate belts and the polar regions which look like gray beanie caps.
Dark belts are separated by lighter zones and the whole works is streamed into stripes by narrow, high-speed winds called jets that border the zones and belts. Winds rip along at up to 400 mph (640 km/hr). Because Jupiter makes a complete spin on its axis at the amazing rate of just 9.9 hours, you can watch new features rotate into view by revisiting the planet in your telescope several times during the night.
Jupiter’s weather is as changeable as Earth’s. Belts narrow, widen, split in two or even disappear altogether for a couple years before reforming. The familiar Great Red Spot (GRS), a hurricane-like storm more than twice Earth’s diameter that’s raged for centuries, changes color from pale tan to brick red. This year it’s pink-colored and nestled in a pale “hollow”. You’ll need good seeing, a 4.5-inch or larger telescope and magnification of around 100x to spot it.
To know when to look for the GRS, click HERE and you’ll get dates and times when it’s front up and center on Jupiter. The times shown are Universal or Greenwich Time. Subtract 5 hours for Eastern, 6 for Central, 7 for Mountain and 8 for Pacific.
I can’t say enough about this planet. Mars shows lots of detail too, but it’s typically so small you have to work hard and consistently to appreciate its vague markings. Saturn of course is fantastic but features in its atmosphere are subtle and change slowly. Venus and Mercury show phases but precious little else. Only Jupiter happily gives away its secrets even to the beginning observer with a small telescope.
Below are times when the planet’s moons pass either fully or partially in front of one another (called an occultation) and eclipse each other.
During an occultation, you can watch the moons get closer and closer until they merge into a single object. Minutes later they separate and go their own way. To watch one, be sure to start observing at least 10 minutes before the times shown. Moons will fade in brightness when occulted but I’ve found this difficult in practice to see because they’re sitting atop one another and appear as one.
In an eclipse, the shadow of a moon will cause the other to fade for a few minutes and then re-brighten. If the fade is 50% or more, you can see the change in brightness through the scope. Really fun to watch. Bolded events are the best eclipses of the bunch.
Mutual events for Jupiter’s satellites in February – Times are CST:
Feb. 8 11:26-29 p.m. Io occults Europa (pair very close to Jupiter)
Feb. 8 11:32-34 p.m. Io eclipses Europa 2% shadowed (pair very close to Jupiter)
Feb. 14 6:20-28 p.m. Europa eclipses Io 85% (comfortable separation from planet; should be very easy to see fading)
Feb. 16 1:23-26 a.m. Io occults Europa
Feb. 16 1:44-47 a.m. Io eclipses Europa
Feb. 17 11:48-57 p.m Europa eclipses Callisto 44%
Feb. 19 6:34-43 p.m. Io eclipses Ganymede 84% (deep eclipse, very nice!)
Feb. 21 8:04-11 p.m. Europa occults Io
Feb. 23 7:42-47 p.m. Ganymede occults Io
Feb. 23 8:38-45 p.m. Ganymede eclipses Io 57% (pair very close to Jupiter)
Feb. 26 8:17-24 p.m. Io occults Ganymede 36%
Feb. 26 9:31-40 p.m. Io eclipses Ganymede 97% (Deepest and best eclipse event of the month)
Feb. 26 10:27-39 p.m. Callisto eclipses Ganymede 58%
Feb. 27 11:33-36 p.m. Europa eclipses Ganymede .2%
Feb. 28 10:09-16 p.m. Europa occults Io 59%
Feb. 28 11:01-11:08 p.m. Europa eclipses Io 90% (another excellent eclipse)