NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (NASA Goddard)
NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (NASA Goddard)

Look Up! Jupiter Is Close, Bright, and Showing Its Stripes

NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (NASA Goddard)
NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (NASA Goddard)

Look up tonight and you’ll see a big, bright, beautiful spot of light that looks like it would be perfect for taking you to Neverland. DO NOT FOLLOW IT. It is not the “second star to the right.” It’s not even a star. Follow it and you will be killed by a massive radiation belt that surrounds it. Reach it and you will be ripped apart by its intense gravity. And if your spaceship survives all of that (it won’t), you will be obliterated when you reach its liquid metallic hydrogen core. What you are seeing tonight is the planet Jupiter, and tonight it is as close to the Earth as it’s going to get this year. So what is going on up there?

Tonight Jupiter is on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun, or “at opposition.” Because these objects are in a line—Sun, Earth, Jupiter—the disc we see is fully lit by direct sunlight. Conversely, were you to stand on the surface of Jupiter (you can’t because it doesn’t have one), Earth would seem totally black. You might be wondering whether the Earth’s shadow will cause a Jovian eclipse, and the answer is no. Tiny Earth’s shadow could no more blot out Jupiter than a fly could block the bat signal. During opposition this year, Jupiter will be a mere 414 million miles away from us. Everyone be on your best behavior.

If you have a telescope, tonight you are in for a treat. If the light pollution in your area is at a minimum, your skies are clear, and if you give your eyes a good 45 minutes or so to adjust to the darkness, when you point your glass at Jupiter and focus, you’re going to see some magical things. First: its beautiful, swirling, colorful bands of clouds. Jupiter is all clouds all the time, and not like Venus—a smudge of basically the same color from pole to pole. Rather, Jupiter is characterized by stark and contrasting parallel bands of clouds. Brown stripes and white stripes and rust stripes and tan stripes. They’re easy, relatively speaking, to discern with a telescope.

To be clear: What you will see from your backyard is not going to look like it was taken by Hubble, as the gorgeous portrait above was just a few days ago. When you look through the eyepiece, Jupiter isn’t suddenly going to look like the Moon. You’re going to have to work at this and really set yourself to the task of seeing the details. But once you succeed, you’ll know it immediately.

After you’ve experienced the wonder of our place in the cosmos, it’s time to move on to step 2: the Galilean moons, named for the guy who discovered them. Though Jupiter has about 67 known moons, most of them are very small. When Galileo set his telescope to the study of Jupiter in 1610, he noticed three “fixed stars” in a line through that planet. He later noticed that one of them vanished, and later reappeared. He then found a fourth. What he realized he was seeing were moons orbiting a planet, which annihilated the notion that all bodies in space must orbit the Earth. (This did not go over well with the Church, either, though in truth Galileo was obnoxious about the whole thing, and his later house arrest had as much to do with that as anything else.) The moons he saw were Io, Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto.

You should be able to see the moons even with a powerful set of binoculars; look for pinpricks in a line through Jupiter, just as Galileo saw. Once you check that box, it’s on to the next challenge: finding the famous Giant Red Spot. You’ll need a more powerful telescope for this, but the secret to finding the Giant Red Spot on Jupiter is to look closely at Jupiter for a giant red spot. How giant is it? Twice-as-large-as-the-Earth giant.

The Eeyore in you is probably wondering what you can do if it rains tonight, or if clouds roll in and settle for a spell. Good news! Starting at 4:30 EDT, Slooh will have a Jupiter livestream, during which astronomers will explain what’s going on up there. The livestream will also feature views from remote telescopes, giving you some pretty wondrous images without the trouble of being in nature or forcing your poor, weary pupils to expand and adjust to the unpleasantness of darkness. If all that is still too much for you, here are the images of Jupiter taken by the Galileo spacecraft. You could also watch this short NASA video about all the footage Hubble has captured over the years of Jupiter and its moons.

Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.


Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.


Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.


You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.


First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

New NASA Satellite Called TESS Could Discover Thousands of New Planets

Since NASA’s Kepler spacecraft launched in 2009, the space agency has found and confirmed a whopping 2343 new planets. Of those, 30 are considered to be situated in a “habitable zone,” an area in which a planet’s surface could theoretically contain water.

A new satellite, set to launch today, is expected to find thousands more planets outside of our solar system, known as exoplanets. TESS, short for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is NASA’s latest effort to plumb the depths and darkness of outer space in search of other Earth-like planets—including those that could potentially support life.

TESS is slated to complete a two-year survey of the “solar neighborhood,” a general region which comprises more than 200,000 of the brightest nearby stars. To find these outlier planets, NASA scientists will be keeping an eye out for temporary changes in brightness, which indicate that a planet is blocking its host star.

According to Martin Still, the program scientist working on the TESS mission, the launch comes “with certainty” that TESS will find many nearby exoplanets. "We expect to find a whole range of planet sizes, between planets the size of Mercury or even the Moon—our Moon—to planets the same size as Jupiter and everything in between,” Still said in a NASA interview.

While the Kepler mission was considered a major success, NASA noted that most of the planets it recorded are those that orbit faint, faraway stars, making it difficult to conduct follow-up observations. The stars that TESS plans to survey will be 30 to 100 times brighter than those observed by its predecessor. This allows for newly detected planets and their atmospheres to be characterized more easily.

“Before Kepler launched, we didn't know for sure if Earth-sized planets existed,” Elisa V. Quintana, a NASA astrophysicist, told Reddit. “Kepler was a statistical survey that looked at a small patch of sky for four years and taught us that Earths are everywhere. TESS is building on Kepler in the sense that TESS wants to find more small planets but ones that orbit nearby, bright stars. These types of planets that are close to us are much more easy to study, and we can measure their masses from telescopes here on Earth.”

The most common categories of exoplanets are Earth- and Super Earth–sized masses—the latter of which are larger than Earth but smaller than Uranus and Neptune.

TESS is scheduled to launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 6:32pm EDT today.

For more information about TESS, check out this video from NASA.


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