Jupiter’s opposition happens on July 14, 2020 at 08:00 UTC. At opposition, Earth in its orbit flies between Jupiter and the sun, placing Jupiter opposite the sun in our sky. You’d think Jupiter would be closest to Earth on the day of opposition. But it isn’t. Jupiter doesn’t come closest to us for the year 2020 until July 15 at 10:00 UTC. The least distance between Earth and Jupiter this year will be 385 million miles (619 million km).
Why isn’t Jupiter closest to Earth on the day Earth goes between Jupiter and the sun?
Jupiter and Earth would be closest on the day of opposition, if the orbits of Earth and Jupiter were perfect circles and if our two worlds orbited on the same exact plane. Both Earth and Jupiter have orbits that are very nearly circular. They go around the sun on almost the same plane. But – in both cases – not quite.
Consider that, because Jupiter’s orbit is elliptical, not circular, Jupiter’s distance from the sun varies.
Likewise, Earth’s orbit is elliptical, not circular. Our distance from the sun varies, too.
Jupiter’s orbit takes 11.9 Earth-years. Earth’s orbit takes one year.
Right now, we’re headed toward a perihelion – or closest point to the sun – for Jupiter. In other words, every single day, Jupiter is closer to the sun than it was the day before. Are you beginning to see how it can be closer to Earth after we go between it and the sun?
Not yet? Keep reading …
So Jupiter is getting closer to the sun each day. And what is Earth doing?
Earth’s perihelion happens every year in early January. So Earth is getting a bit closer to the sun each day now.
Jupiter is now getting closer to the sun – bit by bit, closer and closer – every earthly day. And Earth is getting closer to the sun – bit by bit, closer and closer – every day. Yet Earth’s change of distance (relative to the sun) is small compared to Jupiter’s. So Jupiter makes a small gain on Earth between July 14 and 15, 2020. After July 15, 2020, the gap between Earth and Jupiter widens again.
And that’s how Jupiter and Earth can be closest for 2020 on the day after our planet passes between Jupiter and the sun.
Understand? If not, check out these two links … or let’s talk in the comments below …
Here are those numbers again:
Jupiter’s opposition July 14 at 08:00 UTC (June 14 at 3 a.m. CDT).
Jupiter closest July 15 at 10:00 UTC (June 15 at 5 a.m CDT).
Bottom line: You’d think Jupiter would be closest to Earth on the day we pass between it and the sun. But, in 2020, Jupiter’s opposition comes the day before its closest point to Earth. Why?
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.