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Earth passes between Jupiter and sun

Jupiter (red) completes one orbit of the Sun (center) for every 11.86 orbits of the Earth (blue).  Animation via Wikimedia Commons.

Jupiter (red) completes one orbit of the Sun (center) for every 11.86 orbits of the Earth (blue). When we on Earth are between the sun and Jupiter, the planet appears opposite the sun in our sky. Astronomers call this “opposition.” Animation via Wikimedia Commons.

Earth is about to pass between the sun and Jupiter, placing Jupiter opposite the sun in our sky on March 8, 2016, at 11 Universal Time (5 a.m. Central Time). Astronomers call this event an opposition of Jupiter. Therefore, Jupiter now rises in the east around sunset, climbs highest in the sky at midnight and sets in the west around sunrise. It shines more brightly than any star in the evening sky, and is the second-brightest planet, after Venus. But Venus only shines in the morning at present while Jupiter stays out all night long.

Jupiter blazes away in front of the constellation Leo the Lion. The closest 1st-magnitude star to Jupiter is Regulus, the brightest star in Leo.However, dazzling Jupiter outshines this star by over 30 times.

Jupiter comes to opposition about every 13 months. In other words, that’s how long Earth takes to travel once around the sun relative to Jupiter. For instance, last year – in 2015 – Jupiter’s opposition date was February 6. Next year – in 2017 – it’ll be April 7.

Jupiter’s closest approach to Earth for the year always falls on or near this planet’s opposition date. In 2016, Jupiter comes closest to Earth on its opposition date, coming to within 413 million miles (664 million kilometers) of Earth.

And, because it’s opposite the sun around now, you can see Jupiter at any time of night. For example – as the chart at the top of this post shows – you can see it in the east at nightfall and early evening. Around midnight, when the sun is below your feet, Jupiter appears high overhead. At dawn tomorrow, you’ll see Jupiter low in your western sky.

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Jupiter!  See it all night now ... brightest

Jupiter on March 6, 2016! See it all night now. It’s the sky’s brightest “star” (really, a planet). Earth passes between Jupiter and sun on March 8 at 11 UTC. Photo by Amod Gupta in Chandigarh, India.

More than one thousand Earths could fit inside the giant planet Jupiter.

More than one thousand Earths could fit inside the giant planet Jupiter.

Jupiter is sometimes called a failed star. You would need at least 80 Jupiters – rolled into a ball – to be hot enough inside for thermonuclear reactions to ignite. In other words, Jupiter is not massive enough to shine as stars do.

But Jupiter is the largest and most massive planet in our solar system. So when the sun goes down on this March night, you might — if you’re fanciful enough — imagine bright Jupiter as a tiny sun all night long.

Bottom line: Be sure to look for Jupiter on the night of March 7 and 8, as this world reaches opposition and its closest point to Earth for this year!

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Live by the moon with your 2016 EarthSky lunar calendar!

Deborah Byrd