Categories: JupiterObserving

Observing Alert: Rare Triple Transit Of Jupiter’s Moons Happens Friday Night (Oct. 11-12)

Talk about a great fall lineup. Three of Jupiter’s four brightest moons plan a rare show for telescopic observers on Friday night – Saturday morning Oct. 11-12. For a span of just over an hour, Io, Europa and Callisto will simultaneously cast shadows on the planet’s cloud tops, an event that hasn’t happened since March 28, 2004.

Who doesn’t remember their first time looking at Jupiter and his entourage of dancing moons in a telescope? Because each moves at a different rate depending on its distance from the planet, they’re constantly on the move like kids in a game of musical chairs. Every night offers a different arrangement.

Jupiter and its four brightest moons seen in a small telescope. Credit: Bob King

Some nights all four of the brightest are strung out on one side of the planet, other nights only two or three are visible, the others hidden behind Jupiter’s “plus-sized” globe. Occasionally you’ll be lucky enough to catch the shadow of one of moons as it transits or crosses in front of the planet. We call the event a shadow transit, but to someone watching from Jupiter, the moon glides in front of the sun to create a total solar eclipse.

Since the sun is only 1/5 as large from Jupiter as seen from Earth, all four moons are large enough to completely cover the sun and cast inky shadows. To the eye they look like tiny black dots of varying sizes. Europa, the smallest, mimics a pinprick. The shadows of Io and Callisto are more substantial. Ganymede, the solar system’s largest moon at 3,269 miles (5,262 km), looks positively plump compared to the others. Even a small telescope magnifying around 50x will show it.

Jupiter on Sept. 24 with its moon Europa (at left) casting a pinhead black shadow on Jupiter’s clouds. Credit: John Chumack

The three inner satellites – Io, Europa and Ganymede – have shadow transits every orbit. Distant Callisto only transits when Jupiter’s tilt relative to Earth is very small, i.e. the plane of the planet’s moons is nearly edge-on from our perspective. Callisto transits occur in alternating “seasons” lasting about 3 years apiece. Three years of shadow play are followed by three years of shadowless misses. Single transits are fairly common; you can find tables of them online like this one from Project Pluto or plug in time and date into a free program like Meridian for a picture and list of times.

Because Io, Europa and Ganymede orbit in a 4:2:1 resonance (Io revolves four times around Jupiter in the time it takes Ganymede to orbit once; Europa completes two orbits for Ganymede’s one) it’s impossible for all three to line up – along with Callsto – for a “quadruple transit”. Credit: Matma Rex / Wikipedia

Seeing two shadows inch across Jupiter’s face is very uncommon, and three are as rare as a good hair day for Donald Trump. Averaged out, triple transits occur once or twice a decade. Friday night Oct. 11 each moon enters like actors in a play. Callisto appears first at 11:12 p.m. EDT followed by Europa and then Io. By 12:32 a.m. all three are in place.

Catch them while you can. Groups like these don’t last long. A little more than an hour later Callisto departs, leaving just two shadows.  You’ll find the details below. All times are Eastern Daylight or EDT. Subtract one hour for Central time and add four hours for BST (British Summer Time):

* Callisto’s shadow enters the disk – 11:12 p.m. Oct. 11
* Europa – 11:24 p.m.
* Io – 12:32 a.m.
** TRIPLE TRANSIT from 12:32 – 1:37 a.m.
* Callisto departs – 1:37 a.m.
* Europa departs – 2:01 a.m.
* Io departs – 2:44 a.m.

Looking at Jupiter from high above the plane of the solar system in this diagram from more than a century ago, we can better picture how shadow transits and eclipses happen. The tiny disk of Io and the shadow of Ganymede are seen in transit; Callisto is about to be eclipsed by Jupiter’s shadow.  Credit: Garrett Serviss from “Pleasures of the Telescope” (annotations: Bob King)

The triple transit will be seen across the eastern half of the U.S., Europe and western Africa. Those living on the East Coast have the best view in the U.S. with Jupiter some 20-25 degrees high in the northeastern sky around 1 a.m. local time. Things get dicier in the Midwest where Jupiter climbs to only 5-10 degrees. From the mountain states the planet won’t  rise until Callisto’s shadow has left the disk, leaving a two-shadow consolation prize. If you live in the Pacific time zone and points farther west, you’ll unfortunately miss the event altogether.

From the Eastern Time Zone Jupiter will be well-placed in the eastern sky during the transit. Created with Stellarium

Key to seeing all three shadows clearly, especially if Jupiter is low in the sky, is steady air or what skywatchers call “good seeing”. The sky can be so clear you’d swear there’s a million stars up there, but a look through the telescope will sometimes show dancing, blurry images due to invisible air turbulence. That’s “bad seeing”. Unfortunately, bad seeing is more common near the horizon where we peer through a greater thickness of atmosphere. But don’t let that keep you inside Friday night. With a spell of steady air, all you need is a 4-inch or larger telescope magnifying around 100x to spot all three.

The March 28, 2004 triple transit. Shadows from left: Ganymede, Io and Callisto. You can also see the disks of Io (white dot) and Ganymede (blue dot) in this photo taken in infrared light by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA

If bad weather blocks the view, there are two more triple transits coming up soon – a 95-minute-long event on June 3, 2014 starring Europa, Ganymede and Callisto (not visible in the Americas) and a 25-minute show on Jan. 24, 2015 featuring Io, Europa and Callisto and visible across Western Europe and the Americas. That’s it until dual triple transits in 2032.


Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

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