Jupiter shows off its incredible cloud features in a photo taken December 24, 2013, by well-known astroimager Don Parker of Coral Gables, Florida.
The King of Planets starts off the New Year with a bang. Jupiter is at its best for the year during the first few days of January, shining brilliantly at a point in the sky astronomers call opposition — opposite the Sun. This means it’s at maximum brilliancy, reflecting the greatest amount of sunlight straight back to us, and it’s also visible all night, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise.
The largest planet in our solar system is so big that it could hold 1,266 Earths inside. It is not, as some have said, a “failed star,” being only a fraction of the mass it would take to ignite nuclear fusion, the mechanism by which stars shine.
But it is a treat in our skies, and never better than right now. Consider this spectacular image taken by amateur astronomer Don Parker from Coral Gables, Florida, on December 24, 2013.
The photograph shows a multitude of cloud features in the planet’s upper atmosphere, many of which are visible through telescopes used by amateur astronomers.
Look for Jupiter in the eastern sky during the early evening. The giant planet resides in the constellation Gemini the Twins. // Astronomy: Roen Kelly
But you won’t need a telescope to see Jupiter. On January 5, at opposition, the planet shines magnificently at magnitude –2.7, making it brighter than any of the stars in the sky. The planet will also lie high in the sky from late evening through early morning.
Through a small telescope, you’ll be able to see Jupiter’s cloud belts and bands, and the four small moons lined up around the planet that Galileo discovered in 1610 — Ganymede, Europa, Callisto, and Io. Observe the planet on successive evenings, and you’ll see these moons, which appear like tiny “stars,” dance around the big globe of Jupiter.
You can use the accompanying map to find Jupiter.
While you look at it, consider that this planet might have played a role in why we are here today. The solar system contains numerous small bodies — comets and asteroids — and Jupiter often acts as a “cosmic vacuum cleaner,” sweeping up some of these rocks and chunks of ice, preventing them from moving in to perhaps impact Earth.
Jupiter is the largest gas giant planet in our solar system (although Saturn’s rings are prettier!), but astronomers have, over the past decade and a half, discovered quite a few Jupiter-like planets orbiting nearby stars. Many, many Jupiters are out there in the distant dark reaches of the cosmos.