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Jupiter looks the largest and brightest on Earth in 59 years on Monday

Starting this weekend, skygazers will see a rare view of Jupiter’s massive size, as it appears to be the largest and brightest in decades. Jupiter will be one of the most brilliant natural objects, if not the most, in the night sky.

On Sunday, Jupiter will reach its shortest distance from Earth in 59 years at about 367 million miles. On Monday, the gas giant will reach opposition, meaning it will appear opposite the sun ahead of those on Earth. Jupiter will rise in the east while the sun sets in the west. The two events will Jupiter appear brighter and bigger in the sky, with the best Monday night views, according to NASA. In the coming weeks, however, the planet will appear slightly larger and brighter.

Separately, the two occurrences are not exceptionally rare. Jupiter reaches opposition every 13 months, making the gas giant appear larger and brighter than at any other time of the year. It is also closest to Earth and appears larger, about every 12 years, the time it takes the planet to orbit the sun. The overlap of the two events is a game of physics and will not happen again until 2139.

“This is one of the great things about living on a moving planet,” said Michelle Thaller, an astronomer at NASA. “Everything is set up to make Jupiter the largest you’ll see in the sky for the past 59 years.”

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Amateur astronomers are likely to notice the differences the most, Thaller said. Using binoculars or a telescope, humans will be able to observe the finer details of Jupiter, including its bands, and three or four of its Galilean moons, according to NASA. Aerial viewers should find a high altitude, dark skies, and dry weather for the best view.

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Telescopes in space will also be able to capture a closer view of the gas giant in the coming months, Thaller said. The recently launched James Webb Space Telescope has already captured an exceptional view of the planet in remarkable detail. The image, made of various composites, shows auroras over Jupiter’s northern and southern poles. The famous Great Red Spot, a large spinning storm that could swallow the Earth, and the clouds appear white because they reflect a lot of sunlight.

Jupiter has long fascinated astronomers, as it could give directions to Earth’s early history. Jupiter was probably the first planet to form in our solar system, made of leftover gas and dust from the sun’s formation about 4.6 billion years ago. During this time, the large, heavy planet swung through the inner solar system, destroying other new planets that formed in its path. Debris from the destroyed nascent planets were some of the building materials for Venus, Earth, Mars, and Mercury.

Thaller said Jupiter may also be responsible for much of the water on our home planet. As Jupiter moved through the inner solar system, it could have supplied some of the water that fills our oceans today. Much of Earth’s surface water “may have been brought in by Jupiter coming in and carrying a lot of the icy stuff from the outer solar system,” Thaller said.

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For galactic explorers, Jupiter’s moon Europa is also one of the most likely places to find life in our solar system, beyond Earth. The icy moon could have the three necessary ingredients for life: water, energy and chemistry.

As Jupiter makes its rare approach and opposition, admire one of the biggest physical reasons we’re here. “There are so many cool things about Jupiter,” Thaller said. “It will look particularly large and bright in the coming weeks. It will just be beautiful.”



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