Astronomy Essentials

Here’s how to see Jupiter’s 4 largest moons

Partial view of Jupiter with Great Red Spot and 4 smaller variously colored moons on black background.
Composite image of Jupiter and its 4 Galilean moons. From left to right the moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. The Galileo spacecraft obtained the images to make this composite in 1996. Image via NASA Photojournal.

Even though Jupiter is way out in the outer solar system, you can still see its four largest moons. They’re often called the Galilean moons to honor the Italian astronomer Galileo, who discovered them in 1610. You can glimpse them with binoculars – and see them with a telescope – whenever Jupiter is visible

From Earth, through a small telescope or strong binoculars, they look like tiny starlike pinpricks of light. But you’ll know they’re not stars because you’ll see them stretched out in a line that bisects Jupiter. Depending on what sort of optical aid you use, you might glimpse just one moon, or see all four. If you’re using a telescope, and you see fewer than four moons, that might be because a moon is behind – or in front of – Jupiter. If a moon is in front of the planet, you can sometimes see the moon’s shadow on Jupiter’s cloudtops.

Going from closest moon to Jupiter to the outermost, their order is Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Bright yellowish planet Jupiter in the centre, diagonally surrounded by its 4 largest moons, showing as points of light, all labelled.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Kannan A in Singapore captured this photo of Jupiter and its 4 Galilean moons on April 22, 2021. He wrote: “The position of the Jupiter’s Galilean Moons this morning in the skies here in Singapore. The Galilean moons (or Galilean satellites) are the 4 largest moons of Jupiter and first seen by Galileo Galilei in December 1609 or January 1610, and recognized by him as satellites of Jupiter in March 1610. It is amazing to see it with my point and shoot camera without the aid of any additional equipment. How technology has evolved over the years to make this possible!” It is indeed quite remarkable, thank you, Kannan!
Banded planet with four small labeled moons near it, on black background.
Fernando Roquel Torres in Caguas, Puerto Rico, captured Jupiter, its Great Red Spot and all 4 of its largest moons – the Galilean satellites – at Jupiter’s 2017 opposition.

Writing at SkyandTelescope.com in June 2019, Bob King said:

Etched in my brain cells is an image of a sharp, gleaming disk striped with two dark belts and accompanied by four starlike moons through my 2.4-inch refractor in the winter of 1966. A 6-inch reflector will make you privy to nearly all of the planet’s secrets …

When magnified at 150× or higher [the four Galilean moons] lose their starlike appearance and show disks that range in size from 1.0″ to 1.7″ (current opposition). Europa’s the smallest and Ganymede largest.

Ganymede also casts the largest shadow on the planet’s cloud tops when it transits in front of Jupiter. Shadow transits are visible at least once a week with ‘double transits’ – two moons casting shadows simultaneously – occurring once or twice a month. Ganymede’s shadow looks like a bullet hole, while little Europa’s more resembles a pinprick. Moons also fade away and then reappear over several minutes when they enter and exit Jupiter’s shadow during eclipse. Or a moon may be occulted by the Jovian disk and hover at the planet’s edge like a pearl before fading from sight.

Bright full moon, bright dot of Jupiter nearby, 4 pinpricks of light aligned with Jupiter's equator.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Beautiful shot of Earth’s moon – plus Jupiter and its 4 largest moons – on May 20, 2019, via Asthadi Setyawan in Malang, East Java, Indonesia. Thank you, Asthadi!

As with most moons and planets, the Galilean moons orbit Jupiter around its equator. We do see their orbits almost exactly edge-on, but, as with so much in astronomy, there’s a cycle for viewing the edge-on-ness of Jupiter’s moons. This particular cycle is six years long. That is, every six years, we view Jupiter’s equator – and the moons orbiting above its equator – at the most edge-on.

And that’s why, in 2015, we were able to view a number of mutual events (eclipses and shadow transits) involving Jupiter’s moons, through telescopes.

The next eclipse series of Callisto, whereby this moon actually passes behind Jupiter, started on November 9, 2019, and ends on August 22, 2022, to present a total of 61 eclipses. After that, the next eclipse series will occur from May 29, 2025, to June 7, 2028, to feature 67 eclipses.

Large yellow circle and smaller circles with rings and text annotations on black background.
Opposition – when Earth is directly between Jupiter and the sun – is the best time to observe the largest planet and its four Galilean moons. In 2020, Jupiter’s opposition is July 13-14. Read more. Image via EarthSky.

On August 19-20, 2021, Jupiter is at opposition, when Earth passes directly between Jupiter and the sun. Opposition is the middle of the best time of the year to see a planet, since that’s when the planet is up and viewable all night and is generally closest for the year. But anytime Jupiter is visible in your sky featues a good time for viewing Jupiter’s four major moons.

So if you get a chance, grab some binoculars or a small telescope and go see Jupiter’s Galilean moons with your own eyes!

Click here for recommended sky almanacs; they can tell you Jupiter’s rising time in your sky.

Bottom line: How to see Jupiter’s four largest moons.

Posted 
July 12, 2020
 in 
Astronomy Essentials

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