The largest planet in the Solar System, Jupiter hangs between 365 and 601 million miles from Earth depending on its location. That may be a long way away, but you can still see the gas giant if you have the right tools. Here’s how you can spot the fifth planet from the sun without hitching yourself to a rocket ship.
1- Find the Right Viewing Conditions
Before getting your equipment in order, you need to make sure you can see Jove clearly. The middle of the night offers the best viewing opportunities, particularly when the sky isn’t cloudy and the stars aren’t twinkling. The twinklier the stars, the more tumultuous the atmosphere, which makes spotting anything hard.
Although Jupiter is a colossal orange sphere 1,321 times the volume of Earth, it looks like a small white dot to the naked eye, sometimes with a ripply outline. To see the most detail, including the Great Red Spot and the four major moons, you might want to find a viewing spot with low light pollution. Sites such as DarkSky.org can help you locate such places.
2- Get Your Materials
Getting the best glimpse of Jupiter requires good equipment. Ideally, you should have a pair of binoculars to locate the planet and a telescope to zoom in on it. Binoculars that magnify to at least seven times human sight are sufficient, and a 70-millimeter telescope should make Jupiter and its moons–Europa, Io, Callisto, and Ganymede–pop.
Also, get a star chart or download a sky map such as Stellarium onto your phone to make finding Jupiter easier. To keep your binoculars steady, you should also get a prop, such as a tripod. Remember to keep your telescope cool when not in use for ideal viewing. Finally, get a dim red flashlight to help you navigate the darkness without hampering your night vision.
3- Find Jupiter in the Sky
Jupiter travels from east to west throughout the night. Spotting the planet can be hard even if you’re in a state park with low light pollution since the sky is so huge and full of celestial objects. Using your red flashlight and sky map, figure out the region of the sky where Jupiter most likely is.
Experienced astronomers can find the gas giant in the daytime so long as it’s not too close to the sun. The planet appears as a pale speck and is more vivid right before dawn or just after dusk. Only Venus is a more visible planet.
4- Use Your Binoculars
Set your binoculars to seven-times magnification and use them to locate Jupiter once you know the planet’s general area. Finding the gas giant gets easier the more often you do it. Once Jupiter is in sight, you’ll notice the moons are probably clustered on one side of the planet or the other if they’re not hiding behind it. You may even see the moons’ shadows on Jupiter’s face, like beauty marks.
Keep in mind that the phase of the Moon can make Jupiter more or less visible. Our lunar comrade can be very bright, especially when full. If you can’t find Jupiter, it may simply be hiding behind the Moon. Check the International Occultation Timing Association website to learn when Jupiter will reappear.
5- Use Your Telescope
If you want to see Jupiter in all its glory, you need to use a telescope, preferably with a 70-millimeter refractor. Once you’ve pinned down Jupiter’s precise spot with your binoculars, fix your telescope on the cosmic beauty, and zoom in as close as you can. If the sky is clear enough, you might be able to see the planet’s Van-Gogh-like splotches and whorls, which are orange, brown, and white.
Take the opportunity to film or photograph the planet if you get a crisp enough view. Jupiter may look no larger than a Christmas ornament through a telescope, but here’s a fact to put things in perspective: That Great Red Spot on the gas giant’s face could swallow Earth all by itself.
Finding Jupiter is easy. Just set up your astronomy equipment in a remote place at night, find the planet with a star map, and use your binoculars and telescope to get a good look at our celestial neighbor. You’ll be glad you did.