Jupiter in opposition: How to see the godfather of the solar system at its biggest and brightest tonight

As the nights roll in and the sun begins to set earlier each day, the fall months can provide excellent stargazing opportunities, without the chill of winter.

Jupiter will come into opposition tonight, September 26, but what exactly does it mean when we say a planet is in opposition? How to spot Jupiter in opposition? And in which constellation will Jupiter appear? The answers to these questions, and more, are below.

If you’re still able to take advantage of the warm weather and (relatively) clear nights, why not make the most of it with our Full Moon UK calendar and beginners guide to astronomy? And, in case you missed it, we’ve rounded up the best Harvest Moon footage of 2022.

What is the opposition?

Opposition is essentially the planetary equivalent of a full moon. When a planet is close to Earth and on the opposite side of Earth to the Sun, we describe it as that planet being in opposition. The sunlight that shines on the planet is fully reflected, in the same way that the sunlight is fully reflected by the Moon every 29.53 days of the lunar cycle. From our vantage point here on Earth, the planet appears larger and brighter than at other times of the year.

When a planet is in opposition, you can see the entire circular disk of that planet, which means we receive the most light from the planet towards us. So it appears very bright in the sky,” says Dr Jonathan Nichols, a planetary aurora specialist at the University of Leicester.

As the outer planets orbit the Sun, Earth sometimes finds itself between the Sun and another planet, with the three directly aligned. Oppositions can often provide the best opportunity to observe and photograph a particular planet due to its favorable position and brightness.

Opposite Jupiter, Earth will sit directly between Jupiter and the Sun and will remain in the sky above the horizon for most of the night.

Only planets that are beyond Earth’s orbit can be in opposition, these are Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Because Mercury and Venus orbit the Sun inside the path of Earth’s orbit, they can never be in opposition.

Opposition occurs when a planet is on one side of Earth and the Sun is directly opposite, on the other side. i.e. Sun, Earth and planet line up perfectly © Wmheric/ Wikipedia

When is Jupiter in opposition?

Jupiter will reach opposition tonight on Monday, September 26, 2022, when it will be closest and brightest of the year, essentially creating a “full” Jupiter. The King of the Solar System will rise at sunset, 6:52 p.m. on Monday, September 26, and will remain above the horizon until it sets at 6:57 a.m., Tuesday, September 27, 2022, as seen from London (hours will vary by location) .

Weather permitting, we are expected to be given perfect visibility on Jupiter.

What’s so special this year?

This year, Jupiter comes into opposition just as the massive planet reaches its closest approach to Earth, as it moves in its own orbit around the Sun. And it’s the closest approach to Earth in 59 years. The reason for this is the shape of the eye sockets. Since these are not perfect circles, Earth and Jupiter will pass each other at different distances throughout the year. When Jupiter reaches opposition, the gas giant will be located just 591.3 million kilometers (3.95 AU) from Earth. At the farthest point from Earth in its orbit around the Sun, Jupiter is approximately 966 million kilometers away.

And, with a new Moon only the night before, the viewing conditions promise to be excellent. Fingers crossed for clear skies…

What will you be able to see?

To naked-eye observers, Jupiter will appear as a very bright point of light that, unlike stars, does not twinkle. A good set of binoculars (7x to 10x magnification) will give you a view of Jupiter’s four largest moons, Ganymede, Europa, Callisto and Io, and a telescope will allow you to see Jupiter’s stripes.

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“Point a pair of binoculars at Jupiter and you can see four points of light surrounding Jupiter. These are the four largest Galilean moons. They are called ‘Galilean moons’ after Galileo, who was the first person to discover these objects” , explains Nichols.

“It’s fun to watch Jupiter for a few days and see these bright spots change position.”

“Io, the innermost Galilean moon, orbits very quickly and spins around Jupiter, changing position very quickly, whereas the other moons move more slowly. Now, obviously, from our perspective, the tip of light the closest to Jupiter isn’t necessarily Io. But the way to determine that is to either look on an app or see which one is moving faster, faster.”

“[Imaging a planet when it’s in opposition means] you will get better resolution on the planet, as well as collecting as many photons as you will collect. It gives you a nice big, very resolved picture of the planet,” says Nichols.

How you can see Jupiter in opposition tonight ©Getty Images

How you can see Jupiter in opposition tonight ©Getty Images

Jupiter’s bands, the Great Red Spot, and even clouds can be seen through a telescope. Jupiter is a fast spinner and eagle eyes may even be able to spot the slightly squashed appearance of its bright disk.

Beginning around 6:52 p.m. on Monday, September 26, Jupiter will rise in the eastern sky in the constellation Pisces. As the night progresses, the planet will travel east and reach its peak in the middle of the night before setting at sunrise and disappearing below the horizon at 6:57 a.m. the following day.

If you’re interested in astrophotography or creating an animation of Jupiter, expert Pete Lawrence has put together this handy guide on how to create a planetary animation.

How to spot Jupiter in the night sky?

Jupiter is one of the brightest objects in the night sky, which makes it relatively easy to spot, even without a telescope. If you’re having trouble getting your bearings, there are astronomy apps you can download – all you have to do is point your phone at the sky and the app will tell you what.

For those of you who prefer star-hopping, look southeast after sunset. Jupiter will rise in the constellation Pisces, visible all over the world except Antarctica. Although Pisces is a large constellation, its stars are relatively dim. However, its distinctive V-shape is one of the largest star formations in the sky.

You can find Pisces by first locating the Summer Triangle and drawing an imaginary line from the bright star Vega and dividing the triangle perpendicular to the base, which is made up of Altair and Deneb. This line points to the head of the western fish in Pisces. Jupiter will sit just below the western fish.

Jupiter reaches opposition September 26, 2022 © NASA/ESA/ESO/Space Telescope Science Institute/IAU Minor Planet Center/Fabien Chereau/ Noctua Software

How often do oppositions occur?

Each of the planets comes into opposition on a roughly annual basis. Indeed, the Earth has a faster orbit, passing between these planets and the Sun. The exception is Mars, which is roughly every 26 months because it is relatively close to Earth in the solar system. Jupiter goes into opposition every 13 months.

Jupiter’s 12-year cycle

Jupiter sits in the zodiacal band of the sky and travels about 1/12 of its orbit every year (a single orbit being about 12 years).

In other words, it takes about 12 months for Jupiter to pass through one of the zodiac constellations and move on to the next. This means that Jupiter goes into opposition every 13 months and the planet will pass through all the constellations of the zodiac over a 12 year period.

Like the other planets, Jupiter travels west to east across the night sky, against a backdrop of distant stars and galaxies. However, when in opposition, the planet also enters a period of apparent retrograde motion, when it appears to be moving backwards for a period of time.

Here are the constellations Jupiter will appear in during the next 12-year cycle:

  • September 26, 2022: Pisces
  • November 1, 2023: Ram
  • December 6, 2024: Bull
  • January 9, 2026: Gemini
  • February 10, 2027: Leo
  • March 13, 2028: Virgin
  • April 13, 2029: Virgin
  • May 14, 2030: Balance
  • June 16, 2031: Ophiuchus
  • July 20, 2032: Sagittarius
  • August 25, 2033: Aquarius
  • October 2, 2034: Back to Pisces

About our expert, Dr. Jonathan Nichols

Dr Jonathan Nichols is an Associate Professor at the University of Leicester. His research includes studying the auroras of Jupiter using data from the Hubble Space Telescope combined with data from interplanetary spacecraft.

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Arline J. Mercier