NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has captured a glorious image of Jupiter, with the gas giant coming to its closest point to us in a year.
Jupiter will be at opposition today (April 7), which is the point in its orbit where its directly opposite the Sun in our sky. This also happens to be the point where it’s nearest to our planet, when it will be just 670 million kilometers (416 million miles) away. At its furthest, it can be upwards of 1 billion kilometers (620 million miles) away.
To make the most of this close approach, NASA directed the Hubble telescope to image Jupiter on April 3. Using its Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), it observed the planet in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. At this distance, Hubble was able to see features on Jupiter as small as 130 kilometers (80 miles) across.
This resulting picture shows a wide range of features on the planet. For a start, we can see the distinct bands that run around the planet’s equator. The bands are created by the clouds allowing more or less light through, caused by quantities of frozen ammonia. The more there is, the lighter the bands as more light is reflected. Winds of up to 650 kilometers per hour (400 miles per hour) separate the bands.
We can also see the huge anticyclonic storm known as the Great Red Spot here, which has been raging for at least 400 years. But despite being big enough to swallow Earth, the storm is starting to shrink, confirmed by this and previous images. Scientists aren’t yet sure why it is shrinking.
While Hubble’s image is impressive, let’s not forget that we’ve got a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter – Juno – that is sending back images and data on this world. The mission has had a bit of a hitch, but we’re still expecting some pretty amazing science over the next year.
At this closest point, Jupiter is also going to be visible on Earth, appearing as the second brightest planet after Venus in our night sky. In the UK and US, it’ll be visible after sunset rising above the eastern horizon. And with a telescope or binoculars, you should easily be able to make out its four largest moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.
It reaches opposition approximately every 13 months, but if you don’t get a chance to get outside and see it this time, you can always watch Slooh.com for live coverage of the event.