If you have a 4-inch or larger telescope, tonight you’ll have the opportunity to see a rare shadow transit of the Jupiter’s bright moon Callisto. All four of Jupiter’s easily visible Galilean satellites, so-called because they were first seen by Galileo in the early 1600s, routinely pass in front of the planet and cast shadows on Jupiter’s cloud tops.
Europa is the smallest of the four with a diameter of 3,122 miles and casts the smallest shadow. Io’s shadow is larger and easier to spot, while Ganymede and Callisto – the largest of the quartet – cast the biggest shadows.
Because Io and Europa orbit closest to Jupiter they make more frequent transits across the planet. Ganymede, being further from Jupiter, lines up less often.
Currently we see about five shadow castings per month for Ganymede with only about two for more distant Callisto. When you consider that some Callisto transits occur during daylight hours when Jupiter is unobservable, you can see how infrequent they truly are.
The last time Callisto “dotted” Jupiter was Feb. 6 between 3 a.m. and sunrise. Given the early hour, I suspect very few skywatchers across the Americas witnessed that event. Tonight’s transit occurs during convenient viewing hours starting at 9:09 p.m. CST (7:09 p.m. Pacific, 10:09 p.m. Eastern) and wrapping up about 3 1/2 hours later at 12:54 a.m. CST Feb. 23.
Shadow transits, particularly of Callisto, are leisurely affairs. That’s because it’s the most distant of the four moons and orbits slowest. Io, the closest, puts on a show lasting a little more than half as long or about 2 hours 10 minutes.
Callisto’s next shadow transit occurs on March 12 between 4:11-8:03 p.m. CST. With sunset at around 7 p.m on that date, the transit ends only an hour after sunset in the central U.S. After that we’ll have to wait until April for the next one.
I hope you’re skies are clear tonight so you can check it out.