Astronomy Essentials

Why is Jupiter closest to Earth 1 day before opposition?

Tan, banded Jupiter rotating, with the big oval red spot crossing it, and two bright dots for moons nearby.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Steven Bellavia in Surry, Virginia, created this animation of Jupiter from images captured in the wee hours of October 19, 2023. It’s a beauty! Thank you, Steve. And, if you look closely, you can see Jupiter’s moons Europa and Io, in the upper left and right, respectively. Wow!

Jupiter closest to Earth December 6, 2024

Have you noticed a very bright object ascending in the east earlier each evening? That’s the giant planet Jupiter, now brighter than all the stars!

Jupiter will be closest to Earth at 10 UTC (5 a.m. CDT) on December 6, 2024. At that time, its distance will be 380 million miles/ 611 million km/ 34 light-minutes from Earth.

Jupiter’s perigee – or closest point to the Earth for 2023 – comes at 21 UTC (4 p.m. CDT) on November 1-2. That’s when the distance between the Earth and Jupiter will be at its least for 2023. Jupiter will be 370 million miles, or 595 million km, away from Earth (and 462 million miles, or 744 million km, away from the sun).

Less than 24 hours later – at 5 UTC (12 a.m. CDT) on the night of November 2-3, 2023 – Jupiter will reach opposition, when it’s opposite the sun in our sky. That’ll happen as Earth flies between the sun and Jupiter.

So Jupiter is closest less than a day before we go between it and the sun. Why? Why wouldn’t those two events happen simultaneously?

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Simple diagram of orbits, showing Earth between an outer planet and the sun.
Opposition happens when Earth flies between an outer planet, like Jupiter, and the sun. Why isn’t Jupiter closest on the day we go between it and the sun? Illustration via Heavens-Above. Used with permission.

Here’s why

The answer is that Jupiter’s last opposition – last time Earth in its smaller orbit flew between Jupiter and the sun – happened on September 26, 2022. Then Jupiter was closer to Earth than it had been in 70 years … because 2022 was a perihelion year for Jupiter, a year when the giant planet was closest to the sun in its 12-year orbit.

In 2022, opposition, Jupiter was 367 million miles (591 million km) from Earth, or 95 million miles closer to Earth than it will be at perigee this year. Wow, right? Space is vast.

And – here’s the secret – it was the close conjunction in time between Jupiter’s yearly opposition and its once-in-12-years perihelion that gave us the close approach of Jupiter in September 2022.

And guess what? Because space is vast – because space exists over distances and timescales nearly incomprehensibly large to us humans – Jupiter in its orbit is still being affected by its closest point to the sun in 2022. Over time, slowly but surely, Jupiter is now getting farther from the sun each earthly day.

And that’s why it’s closer to us in 2023 one day before its 2023 opposition.

Charts of Jupiter for November

Star chart: constellation Aries, Pleiades cluster, and Jupiter along a green ecliptic line.
In early November 2023, Jupiter is opposite the sun: rising in the east at sunset, highest at midnight, in the west before dawn. It shines near the pretty dipper-shaped Pleiades star cluster in the constellation Taurus the Bull. Meanwhile, Jupiter itself lies in front of dim Aries the Ram. Chart via EarthSky.
White dots for the moon over 2 days and Jupiter in November along a green ecliptic line.
Watch on the evenings of November 23 and 24, 2023, too. As soon as twilight falls, you’ll find the bright waxing gibbous moon glowing near the bright planet Jupiter. The moon and Jupiter will set several hours after midnight. Chart via EarthSky.
White dots for the moon over 2 days and white dots for Jupiter and Pleiades in November along a green ecliptic line.
The bright waxing gibbous moon will pass between Jupiter and the Pleiades star cluster on the evenings of November 25 and 26, 2023. The Pleiades is also known as the 7 Sisters or Messier 45 and appears as a glittering, bluish cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus the Bull. The pair will be especially close on the evening of November 25, when the moon will pass about 1 degree – or 2 full moon widths – from the Pleiades. It’ll be a great photo op for astrophotographers. Chart via EarthSky.

A closer look at orbits

Earth and Jupiter go around the sun on almost the same plane. Jupiter’s orbit takes 11.9 Earth-years. And Earth’s orbit takes one year.

Both Earth and Jupiter have orbits that are very nearly circular. If the orbits were exactly circular, with the sun in the center of the circle, both Earth and Jupiter would always stay at the exact same distance from the sun.

But the orbits of both Earth and Jupiter are very slightly elliptical (like a squashed circle). So Jupiter’s distance from the sun varies, and it has a nearest point to the sun and – half a dozen Earth-years later – a farthest point from the sun.

Earth’s perihelion – or closest point to the sun – occurs every year around January 4. We’re farthest from the sun every year in early July.

Jupiter’s perihelion doesn’t happen so regularly with respect to our earthly calendar. It falls on different dates across an earthly year, every 12 years.

Jupiter last passed aphelion – its farthest point from the sun – on February 18, 2017. Jupiter’s next aphelion will come in 2028.

After 2017, Jupiter was moving closer to the sun – bit by bit, closer and closer – every earthly day.

Then it was closest point to the sun in 2022. Now it’s moving farther away from the sun – bit by bit, farther every day – and will continue to do so until 2028.

2022 Geocentric ephemeris for Jupiter

2023 Geocentric ephemeris for Jupiter

2024 Geocentric ephemeris for Jupiter

2022 Geocentric ephemeris for sun

2023 Geocentric ephemeris for sun

2024 Geocentric ephemeris for sun

Animated diagram, small black dot orbiting large blue object in elongated oval path.
This animation shows an orbit that’s vastly more elliptical than either Earth’s or Jupiter’s. Still, you get the idea. Perihelion = closest to sun. Aphelion = farthest from sun. Image via Brandir/ Wikimedia Commons (GFDL).

Bottom line: Jupiter’s perihelion or closest point to the Earth in 2023 comes overnight November 1-2, 2023. The distance between the Earth and Jupiter will be 370 million miles (595 million kilometers).

Read more How to see and enjoy Jupiter’s moons

November 1, 2023
Astronomy Essentials

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