Jupiter "in opposition" tonight, closest to Earth for the year Wednesday

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TOLEDO, Ohio (WTVG) - Celestial events such as 2017's total solar eclipse in the U.S. help us develop a healthy fascination with the universe beyond ourselves. While Jupiter's headline act this week won't be as flashy or as widely-advertised, it's still a great opportunity to gain some knowledge.

"Every 13 months or so, the Sun, the Earth and Jupiter line up in the solar system", says Dr. Michael Cushing, director of UT's Ritter Planetarium. "Jupiter is 180 degrees away from the Sun, so we call that opposition."

It's not just that opposition that's causing the brighter look this week. Jupiter is also at its closest point to Earth for the year -- a little under 400 million miles away.

That most visible object in the southern sky will still appear as a distant dot, but you don't exactly need a high-grade telescope to check it out in detail -- a pair of decent binoculars should do the trick.

There will be other points of light orbiting around the gas giant, and you may recognize some of their names: Europa, Io, and Ganymede to name a few.

"These are some number of Galilean satellites," says Cushing, "the satellites that Galileo first saw when he looked at the heavens with his telescope." Jupiter is known to have at least 79 moons, though it's possible more may be discovered with improved technology.

Later Jovian observations included the planet's signature "Great Red Spot", a hydrogen/helium storm about 30% wider than Earth, yet it's been shrinking for the last few hundred years -- and we're not quite sure why.

"Jupiter is very dynamic, and there's a lot of weather and cloud dynamics on there, so we're studying that trying to find out how this all works on big gas giant planets like Jupiter."

Dr. Cushing hopes events such as this week's will encourage future generations to continue that research.

"Getting people to look up into the night sky and appreciate where we are in the universe is a very important thing. It gives you a little perspective every once in a while."

As for the next truly notable astronomical event in Toledo, you'll only have to wait until April 2024 for the Glass City -- and much of Ohio -- to experience near-total darkness during that solar eclipse.