As soon as the sun sets, a really bright star just appears high in the eastern sky. Another bright star begins to come into view about an hour later closer to the horizon.
What’s going on and why are you suddenly noticing them?
It’s Jupiter and Mars—and the clocks have changed so it’s darker much earlier.
They’re bright because our planet, which moves around the Sun at a much faster pace than either of those outer planets, is always in front of them.
You can’t help but notice them this time of year. When driving in the dark, whether it’s for a bit before or during the evening or late at night, you see the bright lights of their headlights coming at you.
Earth is closest to a planet when it rises in the east at sunset. It’s up all night, sinking in the west in the morning.
Planet astronomers love the opposition, or “line of opponency” as it’s also called. Not only does this moment allow for clear viewing of a planet at its peak brightness and sharpness (in addition to an enhanced opportunity in trying to map its entire disk), but it also offers another benefit that is most often overlooked. Because Earth is directly between the planet you’re viewing and the Sun, like a full moon you can see the entire planetary disk.
However, Jupiter and Mars have no opposition in the sky at the moment, so how can they both be so bright and noticeable?
Jupiter was in opposition on September 26, 2022, when it was as close to Earth as it’s been since 1963 and until 2139. That makes 2021 the brightest and best opposition of Jupiter in 166 years.
As the largest planet in our solar system, we’re lucky enough to have Jupiter shining brightly in the night sky for us to watch. It can be seen near November and December, and it’s usually one of the easiest planets to spot with a telescope or pair of binoculars. Its four giant moons are also visible as pinpricks of light. They are named Galileo, Europa, Callisto, and Io.
Meanwhile, Mars will be on the cusp of opposition. On December 7, 2022, the red planet will be both brighter than it is now and rise a little earlier in the evening. It may also have a faint red color (unless it’s already glowing). The planet is actually moving backward with respect to background stars, which happens every time around its once-per-26-month opposition.
Of the two planets, it’s worth keeping a careful eye on Mars. Not only is it shining bright in opposition to Earth, but because of an oddity called an “occultation,” you have a chance to view Mars within minutes before the next day of its opposition. On December 8th, 2022, a sunny full moon will eclipse the brightest part of Mars.