June 2014

Saturn-beforeMy excitement about an occultation which was to occur on 10 June 2014 from 19:15 to 20:16 was met by frowns from a few people who most probably thought that I had plans to slay a black cat. Let me begin by defining the word occult.
Dealing with supernatural influences or phenomena, beyond the realm of human comprehension, inscrutable or available only to the initiate are the more common associations. However, occult also means hidden from view and knowledge of the hidden.
Before I am forever labelled a witch, let me assure you that my excitement was all about an occultation of an astronomical object and nothing sinister.

After days of heavy rain in the Western Cape, the skies cleared as a gibbous Moon glided by while the more distant Saturn disappeared and was completely out of sight for an hour or so. Even though I knew I had time to spare, I braved the cold and kept looking through my telescope, fiddling and adjusting my camera. The moments of disappearance and reappearance, when two astronomical bodies seem to be touching one another, are the most thrilling. With Saturn, even more so because first the rings “touch”, followed by the planet. For just a few seconds Saturn and its rings seem to be halved.

I have often witnessed bright stars being occulted by the Moon. On the other hand, occultations of planets by the Moon are not as frequent but during every year there’s bound to be at least one to observe from somewhere on Earth.

Occultations of one planet by another are rare. The last time such event occurred was on 3 January 1818 when Venus occulted Jupiter. The next occultation involving planets will occur on 22 November 2065 when the same two planets will have a new generation of astrologers in a flurry.

It is also possible for two planets to be occulted at the same time. Such events are extremely rare. I could only find one reference to such an event. On 23 April 1998 the Moon occulted Venus and Jupiter simultaneously for observers on Ascension Island.

Since Aristotle recorded the Moon covering Mars way back in 357 B.C, occultations have been observed, not only for the sake of wonder, but mainly for scientific purposes. Uranus’s rings were discovered when the planet occulted a star in 1977.

Even with occultation excitement abating, The Lord of the Rings will still be prominent in our night skies for the next few months to wow observers.