Whac-a-Moon: Watch Europa appear and disappear this Sunday (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 09 Mar 2013

Whac-a-Moon: Watch Europa appear and disappear this Sunday

This is an edited and updated version of my "Shallow Sky" column this month in the SJAA Ephemeris newsletter.

A few months ago, I got email from a Jupiter observer calling my attention to an interesting phenomenon of Jupiter's moons that I hadn't seen before. The person who mailed me described himself as a novice, and wasn't quite sure what he had seen, but he knew it was odd. After some further discussion we pinned it down.

He was observing Jupiter at 11/11/12 at 00.25 UT (which would have been mid-afternoon here in San Jose). Three of the moons were visible, with only Ganymede missing. Then Ganymede appeared: near Jupiter's limb, but not right on it. As he watched over the next few minutes, Ganymede seemed to be moving backward -- in toward Jupiter rather than away from it. Eventually it disappeared behind the planet.

It turned out that what he was seeing was the end of an eclipse. Jupiter was still a few months away from opposition, so the shadow thrown by the planet streamed off to one side as seen from our inner-planet vantage point on Earth. At 0:26 UT on that evening, long before he started observing, Ganymede, still far away from Jupiter's limb, had entered Jupiter's shadow and disappeared into eclipse. It took over two hours for Ganymede to cross Jupiter's shadow; but at 2:36, when it left the shadow, it hadn't yet disappeared behind the planet. So it became visible again. It wasn't until 2:50 that Ganymede finally disappeared behind Jupiter.

So it was an interesting effect -- bright Ganymede appearing out of nowhere, moving in toward Jupiter then disappearing again fourteen minutes later. It was something I'd never seen, or thought to look for. It's sort of like playing Whac-a-mole -- the moon appears only briefly, so you've got to hit it with your telescope at just the right time if you want to catch it before it disappears again.

A lot of programs don't show this eclipse effect -- including, I'm sad to say, my own Javascript Jupiter's moons web page. (I have since remedied that.) The open source program Stellarium shows the effect; on the web, Sky and Telescope's Jupiter's Moons page shows it, and even prints out a table of times of various moon events, including eclipses.

[Europa eclipse on Mar 10 2013]

These eclipse events aren't all that uncommon -- but only when the sun angle is just right. Searching in late February and early March this year, I found several events for Ganymede and Europa (though, sadly, many of them were during our daytime). By mid-March, the angles have changed so that Europa doesn't leave Jupiter's shadow until after it's disappeared behind the planet's limb; but Ganymede is farther out, so we can see Ganymede appearances all the way through March and for months after.

The most interesting view, it seems to me, is right on the boundary when the moon only appears for a short time before disappearing again. Like the Europa eclipse that's happening this Sunday night, March 10.

Reporting on that one got a little tricky -- because that's the day we switch to Daylight Savings time. I have to confess that I got a little twisted up trying to compare results between programs that use UTC and programs that use local time -- especially when the time zone converter I was using to check my math told me "That time doesn't exist!" Darnit, if we'd all just use UTC all the time, astronomy calculations would be a lot easier! (Not to mention dropping the silly Daylight Savings Time fiasco, but that's another rant.)

Before I go into the details, I want to point out that Jupiter's moons are visible even in binoculars. So even if you don't have a telescope, grab binoculars and set them up in as steady a way as you can -- if you don't have a tripod adaptor, try bracing them on the top of a gate or box.

On Sunday night, March 10, at some time around 7:40 pm PDT, Europa peeks out from behind Jupiter's northeast limb. (All times are given in PDT; add 7 hours for GMT.) The sky will still be bright here in California -- the sun sets at 7:12 that night -- but Jupiter will be 66 degrees up and well away from the sun, so it shouldn't give you too much trouble. Once Europa pops out, keep a close eye on it -- because if Sky & Tel's calculations are right, it will disappear again just four minutes later, at 7:44, into eclipse in Jupiter's shadow. It will remain invisible for almost three hours, finally reappearing out of nowhere, well off Jupiter's limb, at around 10:24 pm.

Here's a link to my Javascript Jupiter just before Europa reappears.

I want to stress that those times are approximate. In fact, I tried simulating the event in several different programs, and got wildly varying times:
Io disappears Europa appears Europa disappears Europa reappears Io appears
XEphem 7:15 7:43 7:59 10:06 10:43
S&T Jupiter's Moons 7:16 7:40 7:44 10:24 10:48
Javascript Jupiter 7:17 7:45 7:52 10:15 10:41
Stellarium 6:21 6:49 7:05 9:32 10:01

You'll note Stellarium seems to have a time zone problem ... maybe because I ran the prediction while we were still in standard time, not daylight savings time.

I'm looking forward to timing the events to see which program is most accurate. I'm betting on XEphem. Once I know the real times, maybe I can adjust my Javascript Jupiter's code to be more accurate. If anyone else times the event, please send me your times, in case something goes wrong here!

Anyway, the spread of times makes it clear that when observing this sort of phenomenon, you should always set up the telescope ten or fifteen minutes early, just in case. And ten extra minutes spent observing Jupiter -- even without moons -- is certainly never time wasted! Just keep an eye out for Europa to appear -- and be ready to whack that moon before it disappears again.

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[ 10:30 Mar 09, 2013    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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