April 21, 2021: Jupiter is about to be edge-on to the sun, and that means unusual things are happening around the giant planet. Here’s an example recorded by Australian astronomer Anthony Wesley on April 19th. “It’s an eclipse of Ganymede by Callisto,” he says.
Callisto is off-screen, stage left, but its circular shadow can be seen moving across the disk of Ganymede. Actually, look again. Just before Callisto’s shadow appears, the shadow of Io partially eclipses Ganymede as well. Wesley captured two of Jupiter’s moons eclipsing a third in only 10 minutes. Unusual, indeed.
This is happening because Jupiter is nearing its equinox on May 2nd; the sun is crossing Jupiter’s equatorial plane. Around this time, the orbits of Jupiter’s moons line up with the sun, allowing their shadows to fall across one another.
Astronomers call it “mutual event season.” During the season, which lasts until August 2021, astronomers can see not only eclipses, but also occultations. That’s when the physical disk of one moon blocks another. The last mutual event season occured in 2015; the next won’t come until 2026.
According to France’s Institute for Celestial Mechanics and Computation of Ephemerides (IMCCE), there are 85 more mutual events between now and the end of the 2021 season. Some of the best may be found in this table from the Cambridge University Press. Only experienced astrophotographers will be able to make movies as detailed as Wesley’s. However, even casual stargazers with ordinary backyard telescopes can see moons winking in and out as the shadowplay unfolds. Look for Jupiter low in the southeast before dawn.
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