Astronomy Essentials

Jupiter climbs upward in eastern dawn during May 2011

You might not see the planet Jupiter in the east before sunrise in early May 2011, especially with the unaided eye. Jupiter still sits low in the glow of dawn. But that’ll change dramatically as the giant planet climbs skyward throughout May. Look for Jupiter to become visible soon!

Jupiter isn’t the only solar system world hiding in the glare of morning twilight in May 2011. So are the planets Mercury and Mars. Mars and Jupiter are climbing upward from the glare of the rising sun, toward Mercury and Venus. Venus might be the only planet shining brightly enough and high enough to be seen before sunrise in early May, though it appears quite low in the eastern dawn.

However, Jupiter rapidly soars upward as Venus falls slowly downward. From about May 7 to May 15, look for Jupiter, Venus and Mercury to occupy a single binocular field of view. Use binoculars to catch them together and low in the east some 45 minutes before sunrise. Thereafter, Jupiter will become the highest of the early morning planets. In late May, in fact, you may need to use Jupiter to find Venus and Mars deep down in the glow of morning twilight.

Use Jupiter to find Venus/Mars pairing before sunrise

Saturn, the lone evening planet in May 2011

By the middle of May, or before, there’s a good chance of spotting Jupiter with the eye alone. In late May and June, Jupiter will probably be easier than Venus to spot, because Jupiter will rise before dawn, whereas Venus won’t rise until a short while before sunrise.

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Animation of morning planets in May 2011

Circle May 28, 29 and 30 on your calendar, as the crescent moon visits Jupiter. Look east, starting an hour or two before sunrise. Jupiter will be easy to spot. Jupiter will rise about two hours before the sun whereas Venus will rise about one hour before.

Crescent moon above Jupiter at dawn May 28

Jupiter, moon closer together at dawn May 29

The planet Jupiter for the rest of 2011

Starting sometime in May 2011, Jupiter will be visible for at least a part of the night for the rest of this year. Earth is now heading for Jupiter in our smaller, faster orbit around the sun, causing Jupiter to rise sooner every day. On April 6, Jupiter was at conjunction – on the other side of the sun, as seen from Earth. If you could have looked down upon the plane of the solar system then, you would have seen Jupiter, the sun and Earth making a line in space, with the sun in between Jupiter and Earth. At that time, Jupiter was invisible because it was lost in the sun’s glare. However, as the Earth and Jupiter continue to circle the sun, we will gain ground on the slower-moving Jupiter. Therefore, Jupiter will become visible for longer periods of time month by month.

On August 1, 2011, Jupiter will be at western quadrature – 90 degrees from the sun in Earth’s sky. If you could look down upon the solar system plane at this juncture, you’d see the sun, Earth and Jupiter making a 90-degree angle in space. Around west quadrature, Jupiter rises in the east around midnight and shines high up at dawn. The moon, as a matter of fact, is at western quadrature at last quarter moon.

Jupiter at west quadrature on August 1, 2011

On October 29, 2011, Jupiter will be at opposition. At opposition, the Earth passes in between the sun and Jupiter, at which time Jupiter lies opposite the sun in Earth’s sky. If you could look down upon the solar system plane at this time, you’d see the sun, Earth and Jupiter making a straight line in space, with Earth sitting in between the sun and Jupiter. Because Jupiter is opposite the sun at opposition, Jupiter rises in the east at sunset, soars to its highest point in the sky at midnight and sets in the west at sunrise.

An opposition is extra special, because that’s when Jupiter shines all night long, from dusk till dawn. Also, this is when Earth comes closest to Jupiter for the year, and Jupiter, in turn, shines most brightly in our sky. What’s more, the 2011 opposition of Jupiter will present Jupiter nearest to Earth until the year 2022.

But don’t wait until the October 29 opposition to enjoy Jupiter. Start watching in late April and May. Expect it to be big and bright in May, even at morning dawn! Just remember … Jupiter is far brighter than any star. In fact, it’s the fourth brightest object in all the heavens, after the sun, moon and the planet Venus.

Want to see planets, meteor showers, eclipses? Visit our night sky page – updated daily!

April 13, 2011
Astronomy Essentials

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