Observing Challenge: Catch a Series of Mutual Eclipses by Jupiter’s Moons

Missing the planets this month? With Mars receding slowly to the west behind the Sun at dusk, the early evening sky is nearly devoid of planetary action in the month of November 2014. Stay up until about midnight local, however, and brilliant Jupiter can be seen rising to the east.  Well placed for northern hemisphere viewers in the constellation Leo, Jupiter is about to become a common fixture in the late evening sky as it heads towards opposition next year in early February.

November 25th
The line-up during the November 25th eclipse event (see chart below).  Note that Jupiter’s moons are in 1-2-3-4 order! Credit: Stellarium.

An interesting phenomenon also reaches its climax, as we make the first of a series of passes through the ring plane of Jupiter’s moons this week on November 8th, 2014. This means that we’re currently in a season where Jupiter’s major moons not only pass in front of each other, but actually eclipse and occult one another on occasion as they cast their shadows out across space.

These types of events are challenging but tough to see, owing to the relatively tiny size of Jupiter’s moons. Followers of the giant planet are familiar with the ballet performed by the four large Jovian moons of Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. This was one of the first things that Galileo documented when he turned his crude telescope towards Jupiter in late 1609. The shadows the moons cast back on the Jovian cloud tops are a familiar sight, easily visible in a small telescope. Errors in the predictions for such passages provided 17th century Danish astronomer Ole Rømer with a way to measure the speed of light, and handy predictions of the phenomena for Jupiter’s moons can be found here.

A look at selected upcoming occultation events. Credit: Starry Night.
Credit and copyright Christoper Go, used with permission.
Credit and copyright Christoper Go, used with permission.

Mutual occultations and eclipses of the Jovian moons are much tougher to see. The moons range in size from 3,121 km (Europa) to 5,262 km (Ganymede), which translates to 0.8”-1.7” in apparent diameter as seen from the Earth. This means that the moons only look like tiny +6th magnitude stars even at high magnification, though sophisticated webcam imagers such as Michael Phillips and Christopher Go have managed to actually capture disks and tease out detail on the tiny moons.

A double shadow transit from 2013. Photo by author.

What is most apparent during these mutual events is a slow but steady drop in combined magnitude, akin to that of an eclipsing variable star such as Algol. Running video, Australian astronomer David Herald has managed to document this drop during the 2009 season (see the video above) and produce an effective light curve using LiMovie.

Such events occur as we cross through the orbital planes of Jupiter’s moons. The paths of the moons do not stray more than one-half of a degree in inclination from Jupiter’s equatorial plane, which itself is tilted 3.1 degrees relative to the giant planet’s orbit. Finally, Jupiter’s orbit is tilted 1.3 degrees relative to the ecliptic. Plane crossings as seen from the Earth occur once every 5-6 years, with the last series transpiring in 2009, and the next set due to begin around 2020. Incidentally, the slight tilt described above also means that the outermost moon Callisto is the only moon that can ‘miss’ Jupiter’s shadow on in-between years. Callisto begins to so once again in July 2016.

Mutual events for the four Galilean moons come in six different flavors:

A look at the six types of phenomena possible with Jupiter’s four large moons. Created by the author.

This month, Jupiter reaches western quadrature on November 14th, meaning that Jupiter and its moons sit 90 degrees from the Sun and cast their shadows far off to the side as seen from the Earth. This margin slims as the world heads towards opposition on February 6th, 2015, and Jupiter once again joins the evening lineup of planets.

Early November sees Jupiter rising around 1:00 AM local, about six hours prior to sunrise. Jupiter is also currently well placed for northern hemisphere viewers crossing the constellation Leo.

The Institut de Mécanique Céleste et de Calcul des Éphémérides (IMCCEE) based in France maintains an extensive page following the science and the circumstances for the previous 2009 campaign and the ongoing 2015 season.

We also distilled down a table of key events for North America coming up through November and December:

A look at selected events through the end of 2014. 1=Io, 2=Europa, 3=Ganymede, 4=Callisto. O=Occultation, E=Eclipse. Created by the author, adapted from the IMCCEE chart for the 2014-15 season.

Fun fact: we also discovered during our research for this piece that these events can also produce a total solar eclipse very similar to the near perfect circumstances enjoyed on the Earth via our Moon:

Note that this season also produces another triple shadow transit on January 24th, 2015.

Observing and recording these fascinating events is as simple as running video at key times. If you’ve imaged Jupiter and its moons via our handy homemade webcam method, you also possess the means to capture and analyze the eclipses and occultations of Jupiter’s moons.

A view never seen from the Earth… Io (upper left) paired with a crescent Europa during New Horizons’ 2007 flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Good luck, and let us know of your tales of astronomical tribulation and triumph!

Seeing in Triplicate: Catching a Rare Triple Shadow Transit of Jupiter’s Moons

The planet Jupiter is always fascinating to watch. Not only do surface features pop in and out of existence on its swirling cloud tops, but its super fast rotation — once every 9.9 hours — assures its face changes rapidly. And the motion of its four large Galilean moons is captivating to observe as well. Next week offers a special treat for well-placed observers: a triple shadow transit of the moons Callisto, Europa and Ganymede on the evening of June 3rd.

The view at 19:00 UT/3:00 PM EDT on June 3rd. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.
The view at 19:00 UT/3:00 PM EDT on June 3rd. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

Now for the bad news: only a small slice of the planet will witness this rare treat in dusk skies. This is because Jupiter starts the month of June 40 degrees east of the Sun and currently sets around 11 PM local, just 3 hours after local sunset. Never fear, though, it may just be possible to spy a portion of this triple transit from North American longitudes with a little careful planning.

The action begins on June 3rd at 15:20 Universal Time as Callisto’s shadow slides on to the disk of Jupiter, to be followed by Europa and Ganymede’s shadow in quick succession hours later. All three shadows are cast back onto the disk of Jupiter from 18:05 to 19:53 UT, favoring European and African longitudes at sunset.  The final shadow, that of Ganymede, moves off the disk of Jupiter at 21:31 UT.

The hemisphere of the Earth facing towards Jupiter from the beginning of the triple shadow transit to the end. the red line marks the day/night terminator. Credit: Stellarium.
The hemisphere of the Earth facing towards Jupiter from the beginning of the triple shadow transit to the end. the red line marks the day/night terminator. Credit: Stellarium.

The following video simulation begins at around 15:00 UT just prior to the ingress of Callisto’s shadow and runs through 22:00 UT:

Triple shadow transits of Jupiter’s moons are fairly rare: the last such event occurred last year on October 12th, 2013 favoring North America and the next won’t occur until January 24th, 2015. Jean Meeus calculated that only 31 such events involving 3 different Jovian moons either transiting Jupiter and/or casting shadows onto its disk occur as seen from Earth between 1981 and 2040. The June 3rd event is also the longest in the same 60 year period studied.

The 1:2:4 orbital resonance of the Jovian moons Io, Europa and Ganymede. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The 1:2:4 orbital resonance of the Jovian moons Io, Europa and Ganymede. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Can four shadow transits occur at once? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The inner three moons are in a 1:2:4 resonance, meaning that one will always be left out of the picture when two are in front. This also means that Callisto must be included for any triple shadow transit to occur. Next week’s event sees Callisto, Europa and Ganymede crossing in front of Jupiter and casting shadows onto its disk while Io is hidden behind Jupiter in its enormous shadow. Callisto is also the only one of the four large Jovian moons that can “miss” the disk of Jupiter on certain years, owing to the slight inclination of its orbit to the ecliptic. Callisto thus doesn’t always cast a shadow onto the disk of Jupiter, and we’re currently in the middle of a cycle of Callisto shadow transits that started in July of 2013 and runs through July 2016. These “Callisto transit seasons” occur twice during Jupiter’s 11.8 year orbit, and triple shadow transits must also occur within these periods.

So, what’s a North American observer to do? Well, it is possible to spot and track Jupiter with a telescope in the broad daylight. Jupiter rises at around 9:20 AM local in early June, and the waxing crescent Moon passes 5.4 degrees south of it on June 1st. The Moon stands 30 degrees from the planet on June 3rd, and it may be juuusst possible to use it as a guide to the daytime event. A “GoTo” telescope with precise pointing will make this task even easier, allowing you to track Jupiter and the triple shadow transit across the daytime sky from North American longitudes. But be sure to physically block the blazing June Sun behind a building or structure to avoid accidentally catching its blinding glare in the eyepiece!

The orientation of Jupiter the Moon and the Sun at 4PM EDT on June 3rd. Credit: Stellarium.
The orientation of Jupiter, the Moon and the Sun at 4PM EDT on June 3rd. Credit: Stellarium.

Do the shadows of the moons look slightly different to you? A triple shadow transit is a great time to compare them to one another, from the inky hard black dot of the inner moons Europa and Io, to the diffuse large shadow of Callisto. With practice, you can actually identify which moon is casting a shadow during any transit just by its size and appearance!

A study of three multi-shadow transits: last year's (upper left) a double shadow transit from early 2014 (upper right) and 2004 (bottom. Photos by author.
A study of three multi-shadow transits: last year’s (upper left) a double shadow transit from early 2014 (upper right) and 2004 (bottom). Photos by author.

Shadow transits of Jupiter’s moons also played an interesting role in the history of astronomy as well. Danish astronomer Ole Rømer noted that shadow transits were being observed at slightly different times than predicted depending on the distance of Jupiter and the Earth, and made the first rough calculation of the speed of light in 1676 based on this remarkable insight. Celestial navigators were also intrigued for centuries with the idea of using the phenomena of Jupiter’s moons as a natural clock to gauge longitude. It’s a sound idea in theory, though in practice, it proved tough to make accurate observations from the pitching deck of a ship at sea.

Jupiter captured near the daytime Moon. Photo by author.
Jupiter captured near the daytime Moon. Photo by author.

Miss the June 3rd event? There’s still two fine opportunities to see Jupiter do its impression of the Earth-Moon system and appear to have only one satellite – Callisto – on the evenings of May 30th and June 7th.

From there, Jupiter slides lower into the dusk as June progresses and heads towards solar conjunction on July 24th.

Let us know if you manage to catch sight of this rare event!

-Send those shadow transit pics in to Universe Today at our Flickr forum.

Watch: An Amazing, Mesmerizing Full Rotation of Jupiter

Jupiter as imaged by Michael Phillips on July 25th, 2009... note the impact scar discovered by Anthony Wesley to the lower left.

Jupiter is a happening place in the solar system. While bashful Mars only puts on a good show once every two year opposition period, and inner worlds such as Mercury and Venus yield no surface details to backyard observers at all, the cloud tops of Jupiter display a wealth of changing detail in even modest backyard telescopes.

And this month is a great time to start observing Jupiter, as the largest planet in our solar system just passed opposition on January 5th. Recently, veteran astrophotographer Michael Phillips amazed us here at Universe Today once again with a stunning time-lapse sequence of Jupiter and its moons Ganymede and Io. Now, he’s outdone himself with a new full rotation compilation of the gas giant planet.

The capture is simply mesmerizing to sit and watch. At 9.9 hours, Jupiter has the fastest rotational period of any planet in our solar system. In fact, with Jupiter currently visible low to the east at sunset, it’s possible to follow it through one rotation in the span of a single long January winter night.

We caught up with Michael recently and asked him about this amazing capture. The sequence was actually accomplished over the span of five successive evenings. This made it challenging to stitch together using a sophisticated program known as WINJupos.

“While this is possible on a long winter night when it is darker longer, I typically find it easier to do over multiple nights than one long sleepless night,” Michael told Universe Today. “If you wait too many days between observations, the features will change significantly, and then two nights will not match up clearly. The seams that result from using multiple nights are tricky to stick together. I created multiple non-overlapping seams and tried to blend them out against one another as layers in my image editing software. The result is smoother, but not quite the same as a single observation.”

A 14” f/4.5 Newtonian reflecting telescope was used for the captures. “Similar weather conditions and camera settings help quite a bit to make the multiple nights’ segments match up better,” Michael noted. “Keeping the same settings, using the same location away from my house  in the corner of the yard (to reduce local atmospheric turbulence) night after night gives consistent results after removing the variability of the weather.”

Planetary photography also requires special considerations prior to imaging, such as getting Jupiter high enough in the sky and at specific longitudes to get full coverage in the rotation sequence.

“I try to consider the local weather patterns and atmospheric stability (seeing), but in reality, I pushed myself to get out as much and often as I could,” Michael told Universe Today. “Typically, I try to wait until Jupiter is at the highest in the sky, as the result is looking through less atmosphere and thus more stable conditions. Sometimes, the planets jiggle around and you just want to scream ‘SIT STILL!’ Basically around the time of opposition I go out as often as it’s clear, as those are opportunities that you don’t get back again until next year.”

Jupiter reaches opposition just over once every 13 months, moving roughly one constellation eastward each time. 2013 was an “oppositionless” year for Jupiter, which won’t occur again until 2025. Michael also notes that from his observing location at 35 degrees north latitude, Jupiter currently peaks at an altitude of 77 degrees above the horizon when it transits the local meridian. “I wasn’t going to squander it waiting for perfect conditions!”

In fact, Jupiter is currently in a region in the astronomical constellation of Gemini that will be occupied by the Sun in just over five months time during the June Solstice. Currently at a declination of around 22 degrees 45’ north, Jupiter won’t appear this high in the northern sky near opposition again until 2026.

It’s also amazing to consider the kind of results that backyard observers like Michael Phillips are now routinely accomplishing. It’s an interesting exercise to compare Michael’s capture side-by-side with a sequence captured  by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during its 2006 flyby of Jupiter:

Both sequences capture a wealth of detail, including the enormous Great Red Spot, the Northern and Southern Equatorial Belts, and numerous white spots and smaller swirls and eddies in the Jovian atmosphere.

To date, six spacecraft (Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyagers 1 and 2, New Horizons and Cassini) have made flybys of Jupiter, and one, Galileo, orbited the planet until its demise in 2003. Juno is the next in this legacy, and will be inserted into orbit around Jupiter in July 2016.

Now is the time to get out and observe and image Jupiter and its moons, as it moves higher into the sky on successive evenings towards eastern quadrature on April 1st, 2014.

Congrats to Michael Phillips on an amazing sequence!

‘Tis the Season to Spot Jupiter: A Guide to the 2014 Opposition

Lovers of planetary action rejoice; the king of the planets is returning to the evening skies.

One of the very first notable astronomical events for 2014 occurs on January 5th, when the planet Jupiter reaches opposition. You can already catch site of Jove in late December, rising in the east about an hour after local sunset. And while Venus will be dropping faster than the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve to the west in early 2014, Jupiter will begin to dominate the evening planetary action.

Orbiting the Sun once every 11.9 years, oppositions of Jupiter occur about once every 13 months or about 400 days, as the speedy Earth overtakes the gas giant on the inside track. This means that successive oppositions of the planet move roughly one astronomical constellation eastward. In fact, this year’s opposition is it’s northernmost in 12 years, occurring in the constellation Gemini. “Opposition” means that an outer planet is rising “opposite” to the setting Sun. As this opposition of Jupiter occurs just weeks after the southward solstice, Jupiter now lies in the direction that the Sun will occupy six months from now during the June Solstice.

This all means that Jupiter will ride high in the sky for northern hemisphere observers towards local midnight, a boon for astrophotographers looking to catch the planet high in the sky and out of the low horizon murk.

Jupiter will reach its most northern point for 2014 at a declination of +23.3 degrees on March 11th.

Jupiter also “skipped” 2013, in the sense that it was an “oppositionless year” for the giant world, as said 13 month span fell juuusst right, first on December 2nd, 2012 and then on January 5th, 2014. The next opposition of Jupiter will occur on… you guessed it… February 6th, 2015. The last year missing an opposition of Jupiter was 2001.

Jupiter and Io (arrowed) as imaged on the evening of December 22nd, 2013 by the author.
Jupiter and Io (arrowed) as imaged on the evening of December 22nd, 2013 by the author.

The exact timing of Jupiter’s opposition to the Sun in right ascension occurs at 21:00 UT/4:00 PM EST on January 5th. Its closest approach to Earth, however, arrives 27 hours prior, owing to a slight outward curvature of the approach of the two worlds. Jupiter will then lie about 4.21 astronomical units (AUs) or 629 million kilometres distant. This is just about down the middle of how close it can pass; Jupiter was just under 4 AUs distant in September 2010, and can pass almost 4.5 AUs from Earth, as happened in April 2005.

Jupiter also reaches a maximum brightness of magnitude -2.7 at opposition in 2014 and presents a disk 46.8” arc seconds wide. The coming month also provides a great chance to catch Jupiter in the daytime sky just before sunset, when the waxing gibbous Moon passes 4.9 degrees south of the planet on the evening of January 14th.

The Moon and Jupiter on the evening of January 14th shortly before sunset. (Created by the Author using Stellarium).
The Moon and Jupiter on the evening of January 14th shortly before sunset. (Created by the Author using Stellarium).

The very first thing you’ll notice looking at Jupiter, even at low power with binoculars or a telescope, is it retinue of moons. Though the planet has 67 discovered moons and counting, only the four large Galilean moons of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto are readily apparent in a telescope. It’s fun to see orbital mechanics in action and watch them from night to night as they change position, just as Galileo first did over four centuries ago. This provided him with evidence that there is much more to universe than meets the eye, though we can consider ourselves fortunate that his proposal to name them the “Medician Moons” after his Medici benefactors was never widely adopted.

Crank up the magnification, and you’ll notice the large twin stripes of the northern and southern equatorial cloud belts crossing the disk of Jupiter. While the northern belt is stable, the southern belt has been known to submerge and disappear from view about every decade or so, as last happened in 2009-2010. You’ll also notice the Great Red Spot, a massive storm system over three times larger than the Earth that has been tracked by astronomers since it was recorded by Samuel Schwabe in 1831. The planet has the fastest rotation of any world in our solar system at 9.9 hours, and you’ll notice this swift rotation tracking Jupiter over the course of a single evening.

Transits and occultations of Jupiter’s moons are also always interesting to watch. The variation in the timing of these events at differing distances led Danish astronomer Ole Rømer to make the first attempts at measuring the speed of light in 1676.

Europa just beginning to cast a shadow off to one side shortly after opposition on January 8th at 7:30PM EST. (Created by the author using Stellarium).
Europa just beginning to cast a shadow off to one side shortly after opposition on January 8th at 7:30 PM EST. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

It’s interesting to note that Jupiter and its moons cast a shadow nearly straight back from our line of sight around opposition. You can see this change as the planet heads towards quadrature on April 1st, 2014 and Jupiter and its moons cast shadows off to one side. We’re also in the midst of a plane crossing, as the orbits of the Jovian moons appear edge-on to our line of sight in 2014 headed into early 2015. The outermost Jovian moon Callisto began a series of transits in 2013 and will continue to do so through 2014.

This is a great time to begin following all of the Jovian action, as we head into another exciting year of astronomy!