Jupiter at its biggest and brightest tonight

NASA captures some awesome pictures of Jupiter. That's almost three times brighter than Sirius, the brightest star in the sky; compare the two at around 9 p.m. local daylight time this week, when they'll appear at about the same altitude above the horizon, Jupiter about 20 degrees high in the east-southeast and Sirius at a similar height in the southwest.

The planet will set in the west as the sun rises on Saturday morning.

"Through binoculars, you should be able to see Jupiter's four Galilean moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto", NASA reports.

The Great Red Spot is an anticyclone, a spinning storm larger than Earth that has been active for at least 150 years.

Since Jupiter is directly opposite to the sun, that means it will rise in the east around sunset, and reach its highest point in the sky right around midnight, setting in the west by sunrise.

This positioning allowed a team led by Amy Simon of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland to observe Jupiter using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3.

It takes this big planetary lug - the fifth planet from the sun, filled with hydrogen and helium - about 12 Earth years to orbit the sun, according to NASA. The planet will "only" be 416 million miles away, closer than any other time of the year, NASA said. Earth and the Sun are on opposite sides of the sky, that's the closest we ever get.

The planet is at "opposition", lined up with the Earth and the sun. Stargazers with small telescopes could see even more moons, he said, and larger lenses could reveal Jupiter's colorful cloud belts.

For reasons that are still unknown, the Great Red Spot has been slowly shrinking since the late 1800s. This way scientists have access to a collection of maps, which helps them to understand not only the atmospheres of the giant planets in the Solar System, but also the atmospheres of our own planet and of the planets that are being discovered around other stars.

Instead, Thursday's picture was simply a reminder that, somewhere out there above the heavens, a decades-old space telescope is still doing what it has done best: capturing spectacularly detailed images of the universe to blow the minds of those on Earth.

The astronomical society could begin hosting public viewing events in a few weeks.

  • Joe Gonzales