They’re unmissable. As soon as the Sun goes down one really bright star is visible high in the eastern night sky. About an hour later another bright star begins to shine closer to the horizon.
What’s going on and why are you suddenly noticing them?
It’s Jupiter and Mars—and the clocks have changed so it’s darker much earlier.
They’re bright because our planet—which moves around the Sun a lot faster than either of those two outer planets—has been passing them on the inside.
You’re noticing them because you’re driving home or outdoors in the dark.
When Earth is the closest it gets to a planet, it rises very brightly in the eastern sky just as the sun sets in the western sky. It’s then “up” all night long, sinking in the west at dawn.
Astronomers call that moment “opposition.” It’s not just a great time to observe a planet at its brightest and best, but it comes with another advantage. Since Earth is directly between the planet and the Sun, like a full Moon it’s possible to see the entire disk of the planet.
However, neither Jupiter or Mars are currently at opposition, so why are they so bright and so noticeable?
Jupiter was at opposition on September 26, 2022 when it was closer to Earth than at any point since 1963 and until 2139, making it the brightest and best opposition of Jupiter in 166 years.
That’s recent enough to have it still shining brightly in the November and December night sky. As the largest planet in our solar system by far, it’s usually the easiest planet to observe. Put a pair of binoculars on it and you’ll also see its four giant moons Galileo (which is bigger even than the planet Mercury) alongside Europa, Callisto and Io. They’re visible as pinpricks of light.
Meanwhile, Mars is on the cusp of opposition. On December 7, 2022 the red planet will be both brighter than it is now, rise a little earlier, and be an unmistakable red color (if it isn’t already). It’s actually in retrograde motion right now—going backward with respect to the background stars—which it always does around the time of its once-every-26 months “opposition.”
Of the two planets, it’s worth keeping a careful eye on Mars, not only for its opposition but for a chance “occultation” occuring on the day of its bright opposition. On December 8, 2022 a bright a full Moon will eclipse Mars at its brightest.
It’s the undoubted astronomical highlight of the year—and only viewable from the northern hemisphere—and it’s sure to get a few indoor folk confused. Keep an eye on my page for more as we get closer to this rare event.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
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