Jupiter, one of the three gas giants in our solar system, is a lovely sight to look at in our evening skies. It always shines brightly but there are times where it is brighter than normal.
These are instances where the gas giant is closer to Earth, although what ‘close’ indicates changes interestingly with time.
Let’s find out how and why this happens.
The Distance of Jupiter Changes Over Time
Jupiter is 365 million miles away when it is closest to Earth and 601 million miles away at its furthest.
Like all the other planets, Jupiter has an elliptical orbit around the Sun. This means that the distance between it and the Sun, and us, keeps changing depending on where we are in our respective orbits. At times when Jupiter is behind the Sun (where Jupiter, the Sun, and Earth align), it moves as far as 601 million miles away.
As both planets continue to move in their respective orbits, Jupiter’s closest approach to Earth occurs when both planets are in line with the sun on the same side of our star. At this time, Earth is between Jupiter and the Sun with Jupiter on the Sun’s opposite side, which is why this time is known as opposition.
Oppositions of Jupiter occurs every 13 months (399 days to be exact). Each time, Jupiter is as close as 365 million miles from Earth, shining the brightest and largest in our skies.
Now you can see why there is no single answer to explain how far away the massive planet Jupiter is. As its position keeps varying, so does its distance. Instead, let’s understand Jupiter’s closest, farthest, and average distance with respect to Earth.
Jupiter’s Closest Approach to Earth
Jupiter is closest to Earth at its inferior conjunction when the gas giant and Earth are in a line on the same side of the Sun. The smallest that this distance can be is 365 million miles (587 million km). The planets’ orbits make this happen every 13 months.
The dates and distances for recent and future inferior conjunctions are given below:
|July 14, 2020||384 million miles (619 million km)||Sagittarius|
|August 19, 2021||372 million miles (599 million km)||Capricornus|
|September 26, 2022||367 million miles (590 million km)||Pisces|
|November 03, 2023||369 million miles (595 million km)||Aries|
|December 07, 2024||380 million miles (611 million km)||Taurus|
|January 10, 2026||393 million miles (632 million km)||Gemini|
|February 10, 2027||405 million miles (652 million km)||Leo|
|March 12, 2028||412 million miles (664 million km)||Leo|
|April 11, 2029||413 million miles (665 million km)||Virgo|
|May 13, 2030||408 million miles (656 million km)||Libra|
The fact that both Earth and Jupiter orbit in elliptical orbits indicates that there will be changes in them over time. The closest approach of Jupiter with Earth was in 2010 when it was 75 million miles closer than previous oppositions.
Jupiter’s Furthest Distance From Earth
Jupiter is furthest from Earth at solar conjunctions. The maximum distance that this can be is 601 million miles (961 million km). The dates and distances for recent and future inferior conjunctions are given below:
|January 28, 2021||564 million miles (908 million km)||Capricornus|
|March 05, 2022||554 million miles (893 million km)||Aquarius|
|April 11, 2023||553 million miles (890 million km)||Pisces|
|May 18, 2024||560 million miles (902 million km)||Taurus|
|June 24, 2025||572 million miles (921 million km)||Gemini|
|July 29, 2026||585 million miles (942 million km)||Cancer|
|August 31, 2027||595 million miles (958 million km)||Leo|
|September 30, 2028||599 million miles (964 million km)||Virgo|
|October 30, 2029||596 million miles (960 million km)||Virgo|
|November 30, 2030||588 million miles (946 million km)||Ophiuchus|
During solar conjunctions, Jupiter will be on the other side of the Sun and is impossible to observe under the Sun’s glare. This is also the time that Jupiter is smallest and faintest.
The Average Distance of Jupiter
The closest and furthest distances of Jupiter from Earth happen every 13 months. The average distance of Jupiter from Earth hovers around 385 million miles (611 million km).
Now, it is important to note that these figures are not set in stone, but are useful approximations to remember.
How Long Does it Take to Get to Jupiter?
So far, in this article, we have learned the distance from Earth to Jupiter at two important points in its orbit. We can now proceed to understand how long it takes to get to the gas giant.
There are two ways to go about this. First, we will look at the time light takes to reach Jupiter.
Next, we will board a spaceship (imaginatively, of course) and see how long it’ll take us to travel to the fifth planet in our solar system (we cannot travel at the speed of light, so this should be an interesting analysis).
How Long Does Light Take to Travel from Jupiter to Earth?
Light travels the fastest of all known objects because it has no mass. Its speed is a whopping 186,282 miles per second. At this rate, let’s take a look at the shortest, longest, and the average time for light to travel between the two planets:
Shortest = 365 million miles (587 million km) = 1,962 seconds = 32 minutes and 07 seconds.
Average = 385 million miles (611 million km) = 2,070 seconds = 34 minutes and 05 seconds.
Furthest = 601 million miles (961 million km) = 3,231 seconds = 54 minutes and 25 seconds.
At its average distance of 385 million miles, light takes 32 minutes and 07 seconds to reach Earth from Jupiter. As the planets orbit the Sun, this time varies between 32 minutes 07 seconds, and 54 minutes 25 seconds.
This also means that when you look at Jupiter’s moons in the night sky, you are looking at where they were at least 32 minutes 07 seconds ago!
These calculations are if we could travel at the speed of light, which, unfortunately, we cannot. So let’s look at how long it would take us humans to get to Jupiter.
How Long Does it Take a Spaceship to Travel to Jupiter?
The short answer is two to six years, depending on the route followed and the speed.
Until now, we have been focused on understanding how Jupiter’s and Earth’s orbits work. In order to get to Jupiter, considering the speed of our spaceship and the route it takes is also very important. Let’s take a look at past missions to see how long they took:
|Mission||Launch Date||Travel Time (in days)|
|Pioneer 10||March 03, 1972||640|
|Pioneer 11||April 05, 1973||606|
|Voyager 1||September 05, 1977||546|
|Voyager 2||August 20, 1977||688|
|Galileo||October 18, 1989||2,242|
|Juno||August 05, 2011||1,795|
This meant that their path was not so straightforward, their speed was slower so that when they reached Jupiter, they could be captured by its gravitational field (and not fly away).
So, depending on whether you want to skim by Jupiter or stick around, it will take you anywhere between 546 days to 2,242 days. The shortest time a spacecraft has taken to get to Jupiter from Earth is 546 days or 17.9 months. The longest journey took 2,242 days or 6.1 years.
With this, we have covered planet Jupiter end to end: from understanding its orbit and the time we will take to reach it if we were to hop on a spaceship. Next time you observe the gas giant, I am sure these thoughts will make your experience more fulfilling!