01/03/2014 12:46 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2014

Now Is the Time to See Jupiter!

The King of Planets starts off the New Year with a bang. Jupiter is at its best for the year during the first few days of January, shining brilliantly at a point in the sky astronomers call opposition -- opposite the Sun. This means it's at maximum brilliancy, reflecting the greatest amount of sunlight straight back to us, and it's also visible all night, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise.

The largest planet in our solar system is so large that it could hold 1,266 Earths within its volume. It is not, as some have said, a "failed star," being only a fraction of the mass it would take to ignite nuclear fusion, the mechanism by which stars shine.

But it is a treat in our skies, and never better than right now. Consider this spectacular image taken by amateur astronomer Don Parker from Coral Gables, Florida, on December 24, 2013:


Credit: Don Parker

The photograph shows a multitude of cloud features in the planet's upper atmosphere, some of which can be seen in telescopes used by amateur astronomers.

But you won't need a telescope to see Jupiter. On January 5, at opposition, the planet shines magnificently at magnitude (-2.7) making it brighter than any of the stars in the sky. The planet will also lay high in the sky.

In a small telescope, you'll be able to see the planet's cloud belts and bands, and the four small moons lined up around the planet that were discovered in 1610 by Galileo -- Ganymede, Europa, Callisto and Io. Observe the planet on successive evenings, and you'll be able to see these moons -- which appear like tiny "stars," -- dance in their positions around the big globe of Jupiter.

You can use this map to find Jupiter:


Credit: Astronomy: Roen Kelly

While you look at Jupiter, you might consider that this planet might have played a role in why we are here today. The solar system contains numerous small bodies -- comets and asteroids -- and Jupiter often acts as a "cosmic vacuum cleaner," sweeping up some of these rocks and chunks of ice, preventing them from moving in to perhaps impact Earth.

And also realize that Jupiter is the largest gas giant planet in our solar system (although Saturn's rings are prettier!) but that astronomers have, over the past decade and a half, discovered quite a few Jupiter-like planets orbiting stars near us in the galaxy. Many, many Jupiters are out there in the distant dark reaches of the cosmos.

You can learn more about observing Jupiter at