Rare Triple Transit! There’ll be 3 Moon Shadows on Jupiter on January 24th, 2015

Play the skywatching game long enough, and anything can happen.

Well, nearly anything. One of the more unique clockwork events in our solar system occurs this weekend, when shadows cast by three of Jupiter’s moons can be seen transiting its lofty cloud tops… simultaneously.

How rare is such an event? Well, Jean Meeus calculates 31 triple events involving moons or their shadows occurring over the 60 year span from 1981 to 2040.

But not all are as favorably placed as this weekend’s event. First, Jupiter heads towards opposition just next month. And of the aforementioned 31 events, only 9 are triple shadow transits. Miss this weekend’s event, and you’ll have to wait until March 20th, 2032 for the next triple shadow transit to occur.

Hubble spies a triple shadow transit  on March 28th, 2004 . Credit: NASA/JPL/Arizona.
Hubble spies a triple shadow transit on March 28th, 2004 . Credit: NASA/JPL/Arizona.

Of course, double shadow transits are much more common throughout the year, and we included some of the best for North America and Europe in 2015 in our 2015 roundup.

The key times when all three shadows can be seen crossing Jupiter’s 45” wide disk are on the morning of Saturday, January 24th starting at 6:26 Universal Time (UT) as Europa’s shadow ingresses into view, until 6:54 UT when Io’s shadow egresses out of sight. This converts to 1:26 AM EST to 1:54 AM EST. The span of ‘triplicate shadows’ only covers a period of slightly less than 30 minutes, but the action always unfolds fast in the Jovian system with the planet’s 10 hour rotation period.

The view at 6:41 UT/1:41 AM EST. Credit: Created using Starry Night Education software.
The view on January 24th at 6:41 UT/1:41 AM EST. Credit: Created using Starry Night Education software.

Unfortunately, the Great Red Spot is predicted to be just out of view when the triple transit occurs, as it crosses Jupiter’s central meridian over three hours later at 10:28 UT.

The moons involved in this weekend’s event are Io, Callisto and Europa. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Seeing three shadows at once is pretty neat, but can you ever see four?

The short answer is no, and the reason has to do with orbital resonance.

The orbital resonance of the three innermost Galilean moons. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).
The orbital resonance of the three innermost Galilean moons. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

The three innermost Galilean moons of Jupiter (Io, Europa and Ganymede) are locked in a 4:2:1 resonance. Unfortunately, this resonance assures that you’ll always see two of the innermost three crossing the disk of Jupiter, but never all three at once. Either Europa or Ganymede is nearly always the “odd moon out.”

To complete a ‘triple play,’ outermost Callisto must enter the picture. Trouble is, Callisto is the only Galilean moon that can ‘miss’ Jupiter’s disk from our line of sight. We’re lucky to be in an ongoing season of Callisto transits in 2015, a period that ends in July 2016.

Perhaps, on some far off day, a space tourism agency will offer tours to that imaginary vantage point on the surface of one of Jupiter’s moons such as Callisto to watch a triple transit occur from close up. Sign me up!

Jupiter currently rises in late January around 5:30 PM local, and sets after sunrise. It is also well placed for northern hemisphere observers in Leo at a declination 16 degrees north . This weekend’s event favors Europe towards local sunrise and ‘Jupiter-set,’ and finds the gas giant world well-placed high in the sky for all of North America in the early morning hours of the 24th.

2AM local Credit: Stellarium.
Jupiter rides high to the south at 1:45 AM EST for the US East Coast. Credit: Stellarium.

Look closely. Do the shadows of the individual moons appear different to you at the eyepiece? It’s interesting to note during a multiple transit that not all Jovian moon shadows are ‘created equal’. Distant Callisto casts a shadow that’s broad, with a ragged gray and diffuse rim, while the shadow of innermost Io appears as an inky black punch-hole dot. If you didn’t know better, you’d think those alien monoliths were busy consuming Jupiter in a scene straight out of the movie 2010.  Try sketching multiple shadow transits and you’ll soon find that you can actually identify which moon is casting a shadow just from its appearance alone.

The orientation of Earth's nighttime shadow at mid-triple transit. Credit: Created using Orbitron.
The orientation of Earth’s nighttime shadow at mid-triple transit. Credit: Created using Orbitron.

Other mysteries of the Galilean moons persist as well. Why did late 19th century observers describe them as egg-shaped? Can visual observers tease out such elusive phenomena as eruptions on Io by measuring its anomalous brightening? I still think it’s amazing that webcam imagers can now actually pry out surface detail from the Galilean moons!

Photo by author.
The 2004 triple shadow transit. Photo by author.

Observing and imaging a shadow transit is easy using a homemade planetary webcam. We’d love to see someone produce a high quality animation of the upcoming triple shadow transit. I know that such high tech processing abilities — to include field de-rotation and convolution mapping of the Jovian sphere — are indeed out there… its breathtaking to imagine just how quickly the fledgling field of ad hoc planetary webcam imaging has changed in just 10 years.

The moons and Jupiter itself also cast shadows off to one side of the planet or the other depending on our current vantage point. We call the point when Jupiter sits 90 degrees east or west of the Sun quadrature, and the point when it rises and sets opposite to the Sun is known as opposition.  Opposition for Jupiter is coming right up for 2015 on February 6th. During opposition, Jupiter and its moons cast their respective shadows nearly straight back.

Did you know: the speed of light was first deduced by Danish astronomer Ole Rømer in 1671 using the discrepancy he noted while predicting phenomena of the Galilean moons at quadrature versus opposition. There were also early ideas to use the positions of the Galilean moons to tell time at sea, but it turned out to be hard enough to see the moons and their shadows with a small telescope based on land, let alone from the pitching deck of a ship in the middle of the ocean.

And speaking of mutual events, we’re still in the midst of a season where it’s possible to see the moons of Jupiter eclipse and occult one another. Check out the USNO’s table for a complete list of events, coming to a sky near you.

And let’s not forget that NASA’s Juno spacecraft is headed towards Jupiter as well., Juno is set to enter a wide swooping orbit around the largest planet in the solar system in July 2016.

Now is a great time to get out and explore Jove… don’t miss this weekend’s triple shadow transit!

Read Dave Dickinson’s sci-fi tale of astronomical eclipse tourism through time and space titled Exeligmos.

Jupiter and the Moon Have a Close Encounter in the Sky February 18, 2013

The movement of the Moon makes a fascinating study of celestial mechanics. Despite the light pollution it brings to the nighttime sky, we’re fortunate as a species to have a large solitary satellite to give us lessons in “Celestial Mechanics 101″

This weekend, we’ll get to follow that motion as the Moon crosses into the constellation Taurus for a near-pass of the planet Jupiter, and for a very few citizens of our fair world, occults it.

The Moon versus Jupiter during the previous occultation of the planet last month. (Image courtesy of Luis Argerich at Nightscape Photography; used with permission).
The Moon versus Jupiter during the previous occultation of the planet last month. (Image courtesy of Luis Argerich at Nightscape Photography; used with permission).

In astronomy, the term “occultation” simply means that one astronomical body passes in front of another. The term has its hoary roots in astronomy’s ancient past; just like the modern day science of chemistry sprung from the pseudo-science of alchemy, astronomy was once intertwined with the arcane practice of astrology, although the two have long since parted ways. When I use the term “occultation” around my non-space geek friends, (I do have a few!) I never fail to get a funny look, as if I just confirmed every wacky suspicion that they ever had about us backyard astronomers…

But those of us who follow lunar occultations never miss a chance to observe one. You’ll actually get to see the motion of the Moon as it moves against the background planet or star, covering it up abruptly. The Moon actually moves about 12° degrees across the sky per 24 hour period.

The position of the Moon & Jupiter as seen from Tampa (Feb 18th, 7PM EST), Perth, (Feb 18th 11:30UT) & London  (Feb 18th at 19UT). Created by the author using Stellarium.
The position of the Moon & Jupiter as seen from Tampa (Feb 18th, 7PM EST), Perth, (Feb 18th 11:30UT) & London (Feb 18th at 19UT). Created by the author using Stellarium.

On the evening of Monday, February 18th, the 56% illuminated waxing gibbous Moon will occult Jupiter for Tasmania and southern Australia around 12:00 Universal Time (UT). Folks along the same longitude as Australia (i.e., eastern Asia) will see a close pass of the pair. For North America, we’ll see the Moon approach Jupiter and Aldebaran of February 17th (the night of the Virtual Star Party) and the Moon appear past the pair after dusk on the 18th.

Orientation of Jupiter, the Moon & Vesta on the evening of February 18th for North America. (Created by the author in Starry Night).
Orientation of Jupiter, the Moon & Vesta on the evening of February 18th for North America. (Created by the author in Starry Night).

But fret not; you may still be able to spot Jupiter near the Moon on the 18th… in the daytime. Daytime planet-spotting is a fun feat of visual athletics, and the daytime Moon always serves as a fine guide. Jupiter is juuuuuust bright enough to see near the Moon with the unaided eye if you know exactly where to look;

Jupiter captured during a close 2012 pass in the daytime! (Photo by author).
Jupiter captured during a close 2012 pass in the daytime! (Photo by author).

To see a planet in the daytime, you’ll need a clear, blue sky. One trick we’ve used is to take an empty paper towel tube and employ it as a “1x finder” to help find our target… binoculars may also help! To date, we’ve seen Venus, Jupiter, Sirius & Mars near favorable opposition all in the daylight… Mercury and Vega should also be possible under rare and favorable conditions.

This week’s occultation of Jupiter is the 3rd and final in a series that started in December of last year. The Moon won’t occult a planet again until an occultation of Venus on September 8th later this year, and won’t occult Jupiter again until July 9th, 2016. We’re also in the midst of a long series of occultations of the bright star Spica (Alpha Virginis) in 2013, as the Moon occults it once every lunation from somewhere in the world. Four major stars brighter than +1st magnitude lie along the Moon’s path near the ecliptic; Spica, Aldebaran, Regulus, and Antares which we caught an occultation of in 2009;

Also of note: we’re approaching a “plane-crossing” of the Jovian moons next year. This means that we’ll start seeing Callisto casting shadows on the Jovian cloud tops this summer on July 20th, and it will continue until July 21st, 2016. The orbits of the Jovian moons appear edge-on to us about every five years, and never really deviate a large amount. Callisto is the only moon that can “miss” casting a shadow on the disk of Jupiter in its passage.  The actual plane crossing as seen from the Earth occurs in November 2014. Jupiter reaches solar conjunction this year on June 19th and doesn’t come back into opposition until early next year on January 5th. 2013 is an “opposition-less” year for Jupiter, which occurs on average once per every 11-12 years. (One Jovian orbit equals 11.8 Earth years).

The Moon plus Jupiter during last month's close conjunction. (Photo by author).
The Moon plus Jupiter during last month’s close conjunction. (Photo by author).

But wait, there’s more… the Moon will also occult +7.7th magnitude 4 Vesta on February 18th at~21:00 UT. This occultation occurs across South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. It would be fun to catch its ingress behind the dark limb of the Moon, and we bet that a precisely timed video might just show evidence for Vesta’s tiny angular diameter as it winks out. For North American observers, Vesta will sit just off the northern limb of the Moon… if you have never seen it, now is a great time to try!

Finally, we realized that also in the field with 4 Vesta is an explorer that just departed its environs, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Although unobservable from Earth, we thought that it would be an interesting exercise to see if it gets occulted by the Moon as well this week, and in fact it does, for a very tiny slice of the planet;

The occultation of the Dawn spacecraft as seen from Earth. Created by the author using Occult 4.0.
The occultation of the Dawn spacecraft as seen from Earth. Created by the author using Occult 4.0.

Hey, calculating astronomical oddities is what we do for fun… be sure to post those pics of Jupiter, the Moon and more up to our Universe Today Flickr page & enjoy the celestial show worldwide!

See more of Luis Argerich’s astrophotography at Nightscape Photography.

Graphics created by author using Stellarium, Starry Night and Occult 4.0 software.