On April 7, 2017, Jupiter will reach peak brightness in the sky at opposition, lining up directly opposite the Sun when viewed from Earth. This ideal vantage point also brings Jupiter and Earth closer together than at any other time: 416 million miles (670 million kilometers). On April 3, the Hubble Space Telescope took advantage of these circumstances by imaging the giant planet with the Wide Field Camera 3, which is capable of utilizing infrared, optical, and ultraviolet light to create a more comprehensive image of the planet’s atmosphere. The result is a colorful portrait of Jupiter, to be added to a library of observations of the planet as part of the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program.
Jupiter’s atmosphere is rife with swirling clouds, incredible winds, and storms that last for hours, days, months, years, and even centuries. Its iconic Great Red Spot, which has recently been joined by “Red Spot Junior” at lower latitudes, has been shrinking for at least the past 100 years, with planetary scientists still trying to determine why. The OPAL program, which began in 2014, aims to increase understanding of the outer planets’ atmospheres in the hopes of better characterizing the atmospheres of similarly sized exoplanets circling other stars. Closer to home, the same atmospheric research can be applied to the behavior of Earth’s weather systems.
If you’re an observer or planetary enthusiast, consider stepping outside tonight to view Jupiter at its best. You can spot the planet easily with the naked eye in the east following sunset, and even a small telescope will reveal its most prominent cloud features and largest moons.
You can view and download larger versions of this image at www.spacetelescope.org