If you’re watching the gibbous Moon cross the sky on the evening of March 19th, you’re likely to notice a yellowish looking star nearby. That’s not a star. It’s the planet Saturn. For those of you who missed Saturn’s close appearance to last month’s eclipsing Moon, you’ll have another chance to see the pair.
Right now Saturn is making its home in the constellation of Leo, a backwards question marked asterism of stars. If your eyes are sharp and the sky isn’t too bright, you’ll also notice Leo’s brightest star, Regulus, near Saturn as well. Now is a great time to view all three through binoculars. When Galileo first saw Saturn in 1610, his crude telescope couldn’t full resolve Saturn’s rings. He thought Saturn was a blurry triple system – two small orbs on either side of a large one. He reports read, “I have observed the highest planet to be triple.” Yet, the view you’ll get tonight will be the same as when Galileo wrote, “Has Saturn swallowed his children?” the current tilt of Saturn’s rings will be virtually invisible to binoculars.
If you’re thinking this is quite similar to last month’s eclipsing Moon/Saturn appearance, you’d be correct – only this time the pair meet up two days before the Moon reaches full. Saturn takes 29 and a half years to orbit our Sun and its progress through the constellations of the zodiac is very slow. It takes about 2 and half years for it to move from one constellation to the next. Do the math and you’ll find the last time Saturn was in Leo was 1979 and the last time Saturn and the Moon paired was only about 28 days ago.
You won’t have to wait long for the next event, though. For those living in New Zealand and Eastern Australia, be aware that the universal date of March 19th also means a lunar occultation event of Regulus for you! For example those living in Auckland will catch the event starting at 6 11 53 UT and those in Christchurch will see it at 6 28 13 UT. For detailed information on times and locations, go visit the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA).
Wishing you clear skies…
Tammy was a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter’s Gold Status.
(Tammy passed away in early 2015… she will be missed)