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Jupiter ends retrograde on May 9

Jupiter and its moons as seen through a telescope on August 15, 2009. Click here for more information

Tonight, the planet Jupiter pauses in front of the stars before resuming its usual eastward course along the Zodiac. In other words, Jupiter is stationary on May 9, 2016. It ends its retrograde (westward) motion in front of the stars of the constellation Leo the Lion. Retrograde motion began on January 8, 2016.

What does it mean? Only that Earth passed between Jupiter and the sun earlier this year, on March 8, 2016. That event – called an opposition of Jupiter by astronomers – marked the middle of the best time of year to see Jupiter, since the planet was closest to us and brightest in our sky at its March 8 opposition.

The end of retrograde motion means the best months for seeing Jupiter are over.

And yet you might not believe it if you gaze at Jupiter tonight. Jupiter is still incredibly bright, brighter than any star in the evening sky.

Are you in the Northern Hemisphere? Then look for this brilliant beauty of a planet high in south to southwest sky as soon as darkness falls. As seen from mid-latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Jupiter appears in the northern sky.

Far brighter than any star, this blazing world is even visible from a light-polluted city. You might even see the bright star Regulus to the west of Jupiter.

Blessed with a dark sky? Then look for the Beehive star cluster, with either the naked eye or binoculars, using the dazzling planet Jupiter and the bright star Regulus. The Beehive is a real jewel, and easy to locate this month. The chart below shows you how to hop over to the Beehive.

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While the moon is still a thin crescent, use the dazzling planet Jupiter to locate the constellation Leo. An imaginary line from Jupiter through the bright star Regulus will enable you to locate the Beehive star cluster in the constellation Cancer. Binoculars transform this wispy cloud-like smudge of light into a sparkling array of stars.

While the moon is still a thin crescent, use the dazzling planet Jupiter to locate the constellation Leo. An imaginary line from Jupiter through the bright star Regulus will enable you to locate the Beehive star cluster in the constellation Cancer. Binoculars transform this wispy cloud-like smudge of light into a sparkling array of stars.

Illustration showing why a superior planet moves with a retrograde direction – apparently backwards from its usual motion, that is, westward instead of eastward – for a portion of each year. As seen from the north side of the solar system, all the planets circle the sun in a counterclockwise direction. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Jupiter is the fifth planet outward from the sun, while Earth is the third planet outward. In the language of astronomers, Jupiter is a superior planet. In their outward order from the sun, the superior (exterior) planets are Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Like all the planets, Jupiter always goes eastward in its orbit, or counterclockwise as viewed from north of the solar system.

However, as seen from Earth, all superior planets spend a portion of each year moving westward in front of backdrop stars. The illustration above explains why.

When the Earth in its smaller and swifter orbit swings by any superior planet, that planet appears to be going backward in its orbit (relative to the backdrop stars of the Zodiac) for several months. It’s comparable to passing a car on the highway, with that car appearing to be going backward relative to distant background. Of course, you know that car isn’t really going in reverse. Neither is Jupiter, during its time of retrograde motion.

Starting on May 9, Jupiter will be moving eastward along the ecliptic again – going away from Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. But you probably won’t discern much – if any – movement of Jupiter in front of the stellar background for the next week or two.

Bottom line: Jupiter ends retrograde motion on May 9, 2016. This means the best time in 2016 to see Jupiter is now past … but you won’t believe it if you gaze at the planet tonight!

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Bruce McClure

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