Keen skywatchers in Western Europe and the British Isles will already be aware of a bright ‘star’ low in the southeast shortly after local midnight. The object is, of course, a planet – none other than the solar system’s largest, Jupiter. Any potential confusion as to its identity is resolved in the small hours of Tuesday, 21 May when the waning gibbous Moon lies nearby.
Shining conspicuously at magnitude -2.6, Jupiter is already brighter than any star visible in the nighttime sky, the planet fast approaching its closest approach to Earth for the year. Opposition to the Sun occurs on 10 June, but Jupiter and Earth are nearest two days later at a distance of 4.284 astronomical units or 641 million kilometres (398 million miles).
At 1am BST on 21 May, Jupiter lies almost 652 million kilometres from Earth and appears slightly larger than 45 arcseconds in diameter. While the gibbous Moon and Jupiter may appear close together, it is merely a line of sight effect: the solar system’s largest planet is actually 1685 times farther away than our lunar neighbour.