Catch the Dramatic June 10th Occultation of Saturn by the Moon

Some terms in astronomy definitely have a PR problem, and are perhaps due for an overhaul.  One such awkward term is occultation, which simply means that one celestial body is passing in front of another from an observer’s vantage point, nothing more, and nothing less. I know, the word ‘occult’ is in there, raising many a non-astronomically minded eyebrow and evoking astronomy’s hoary astrological past. You can even use it as a verb in this sense, as in to ‘occult’ one body with another. A planet or asteroid can occult a star, your cat can occult your laptop’s screen, and the Moon can occult a star or planet, as occurs on Tuesday, June 10th when the waxing gibbous Moon occults the planet Saturn for observers across the southern Indian Ocean region.

Created using Occult 4.0
The occultation footprint for the June 10th event. The solid lines denote where the occultation occurs after sunset. Created using Occult 4.0.

Of course, most of us will see a near miss worldwide. This is parallax in motion, as differing vantage points on the surface of the planet Earth see the Moon against a different starry background.

And we’re currently in the midst of a cycle of occultations of the planet Saturn in 2014, as the Moon occults it 11 times this year, nearly once for every lunation. The Moon actually occults planets 22 times in 2014, 24 if you count the occultations of 1 Ceres and 4 Vesta on September 28th, with Saturn getting covered by the Moon once again on the same date! Saturn tops the list in the number of times it’s occulted by the Moon this year, as it’s the slowest moving of the planets and fails to hustle out of the Moon’s way until November, after which a series of occultations of the ringed planet won’t resume again until December 9th, 2018.

4x selected views of the occultation/conjunction of the Moon and Saturn on June 10th worldwide. (Credit: Stellarium).
Four selected views of the occultation/conjunction of the Moon and Saturn on June 10th worldwide. (Credit: Stellarium).

The shadow footprint of the June 10th occultation just makes landfall over southwestern Australia near Perth, a slice of Antarctica, and a scattering of southern Indian Ocean islands and the southern tip of South Africa in and around Cape Town. Note that the phase of the Moon is changing by about 30 degrees of ecliptic longitude as well during each successive occultation of Saturn. Next week’s event occurs as the Moon is at a 93% waxing gibbous illuminated phase this month and soon will occur when the Moon is a crescent. What’s especially interesting is the dark limb of the Moon is always the leading edge during waxing phases; this means that any stars or planets in its way get hidden (or ingress) under its shady nighttime edge.

Looking to the southeast from latitude 30 degrees north from the US east coast at 10PM EDT. Created using Starry Night Education software.
Looking to the southeast from latitude 30 degrees north from the US east coast at 10 PM EDT. Created using Starry Night Education software.

Central conjunction for Saturn and the Moon actually occurs at around 19:00 Universal Time on June 10th. The Moon rises at around 6:00 PM local on this date, and North American observers will see Saturn 4 degrees from the limb of the Moon and at an elevation of 28 degrees above the horizon at dusk. Unfortunately, the best occultation of Saturn by the Moon for North America in 2014 occurs in the daytime on August 31st, though you can indeed catch Saturn in the broad daylight through a telescope with good sky transparency if you know exactly where to look for it… a nearby daytime Moon certainly helps!

Unlike stellar occultations, blockages of planets by the Moon are leisurely events, and lend themselves to some pretty amazing video sequences. You can actually get a sense of the motion of the Moon as you watch it slowly cover the planet’s disk, in real time. It might also be fun to catch the occultation of Saturn’s brightest moon, +9th magnitude Titan. Hey, a moon occulting a moon, a sort of cosmic irony…

Saturn spends all of 2014 in the astronomical constellation of Libra. The Moon moves on to Full on Friday the 13thtriskaidekaphobics take note — at 4:13 UT/00:13 AM EDT. This is the closest Full Moon to the northward solstice which occurs on June 21st at 10:51 UT/6:51 AM EDT, meaning that while the Sun rides high in the sky during the day, the rising Full Moon transits low to the south at night. In the southern hemisphere, the reverse is true in June.

The June Full Moon is also known as per ye ole Farmer’s Almanac as the Strawberry or Rose Moon.

So there you have it, occultations were evoked no less than 21 times in the writing of this post. We need a modern, hip, internet ready meme to supplant the term occultation… y’know, like “ring of fire” for and annular eclipse or minimoon for an apogee moon, etc… blockage? Covering? Enveloping? Let us know what you think!

 

Saturn at Opposition: Our 2014 Guide

Planet lovers can rejoice: one of the finest jewels of the solar system in returning to the evening night sky.

The planet Saturn reaches opposition next month on May 10th. This means that as the Sun sets to the west, Saturn will rise “opposite” to it in the east, remaining well positioned for observation in the early evening hours throughout the summer season. In fact, we’ll have four of the five naked eye planets above the horizon at once for our evening viewing pleasure in the month of May, as Jupiter also rides high to the west at sunset, Mars just passed opposition last month and Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation on May 25th. Venus is the solitary holdout, spending a majority of 2014 in the dawn sky.

Saturn will shine at magnitude +0.3 this month and its disk spans an apparent 19,” or 44” if you take into account the apparent width of its rings. The rings are currently tipped open 22 degrees with respect to our line of sight. The ring opening is widening, and will reach a maximum of over 25 degrees in 2017 before the trend reverses. Anyone who remembers observing Saturn back in 2009 will recall that its rings were edge on to our view. This widening of Saturn’s rings also lends itself to a curious effect: although we’re in a cycle of oppositions that are getting farther away — Saturn is 12.5 million kilometres or 0.083 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) more distant in 2014 than it was during opposition last year as it’s headed towards aphelion in 2018 — its widening rings are actually making it appear a bit brighter.

The path of Saturn through the constellation Libra from April through October 2014. Created using Starry Night Education Software.
The path of Saturn through the constellation Libra from April through October 2014. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

This year’s opposition will find Saturn in the astronomical constellation of Libra, where it’ll spend most of 2014. Oppositions of the ringed planet are set to continue to “head south” until 2018, and won’t occur north of the celestial equator again until 2026. I remember when oppositions of Saturn returned to the constellation Virgo a few years back — where I had first looked at it with my 60mm Jason refractor as a teenager — and realizing that I had now been into observational astronomy for roughly one “Saturnian year.”

The ancients had little knowledge of how unique Saturn was. The faintest and slowest moving of the classical planets, even Galileo knew that something was up when he turned his first primitive telescope towards it. His sketches depict Saturn as something similar to a double handled coffee cup, a testament to how poor his view really was. It wouldn’t be until Christiaan Huygens in 1655 that the true nature of Saturn’s rings was deduced as a flat and separate feature from the disk.

At opposition, the disk of the planet casts a shadow straight back from our point of view. This vantage slowly changes as the planet moves towards eastern quadrature on August 9th and we get a glimpse slightly off to one side of the planet. After opposition, the shadow of the disk can again be seen casting back onto the rings.

An outstanding IPhone 4S capture of Saturn on April 20th, 2014. Credit: Andrew Symes, @FailedProtostar.
An outstanding IPhone 4S capture of Saturn on April 20th, 2014. Credit: Andrew Symes, @FailedProtostar.

Another interesting phenomenon to watch out for near opposition is known as the Seeliger effect. Also sometimes referred to as the “opposition surge,” this sudden brightening of the disk and rings is a subtle effect, as the globe of Saturn and all of those tiny little ice crystals reach 100% illumination. This effect can be noted to the naked eye on successive nights around opposition, and will get more prominent towards 2017. Coherent-backscattering of light has also been proposed as a possible explanation of this phenomenon. Perhaps a video sequence capturing this effect is in order for skilled astro-imagers in 2014.

Through a small telescope, the first feature that becomes apparent is Saturn’s glorious system of rings. Crank up the magnification, and you’ll note a dark groove in the ring system. This is the Cassini Division, first described by Giovanni Cassini in 1675.

Here’s a challenge we came across some years back: can you see the disk of Saturn through the Cassini Division? Right around opposition is a good time to attempt this unusual feat of visual athletics.

A sample simulation depicting the orientation of Saturn's observable moons on the night of  May 9th. Created using Starry Night Education software.
A sample simulation depicting the orientation of Saturn’s observable moons on the night of May 9th. Created using Starry Night Education software.

Saturn’s large moon Titan is an easy catch at magnitude +8 in a small telescope. Titan is the second largest moon in the solar system. Place it in a direct orbit about the Sun, and it would be considered a planet, no problem.  7 of Saturn’s 62 known moons are within reach of a small telescope. In addition to Titan, they are, with quoted magnitudes: Mimas (+13), Enceladus (+12), Tethys (+10), Rhea (+10), Dione (+11) and Iapetus. Iapetus is of special interest, as it brightens from +11.9 to magnitude +10.2 as it traces out its 79 day orbit. We always knew there was something unique about this moon, and NASA’s Cassini mission revealed the world to have two distinctly different hemispheres with vastly different albedos during its close 2007 flyby.

The close passage of the Full Moon near Saturn on May 14th. Created using Stellarium.
The close passage of the Full Moon near Saturn on May 14th. Created using Stellarium.

Also, be sure to check out Saturn on the night of May 14th — just 4 nights after opposition — as the Full Moon sits less than a degree south of the ringed planet. Can you see both in the same telescopic field of view? Can you nab Saturn next to the rising daytime Moon low to the horizon just before local sunset? The Moon will actually occult (pass in front of) Saturn for viewers based in Australia and New Zealand on the 14th. This is only one of 11 occultations — nearly one for each lunation — of Saturn by the Moon in 2014. Unfortunately, the best one for North America occurs in the daytime on August 31st, though it too may be observable telescopically.

The foot print of the May 14th occultation of Saturn by the Moon. Credit: Occult 4.0.
The footprint of the May 14th occultation of Saturn by the Moon. Credit: Occult 4.0.

Finally, this evening apparition of the planet runs through northern hemisphere summer and fall until Saturn reaches solar conjunction on November 18th. So get those homemade planetcams out, send those pics in to Universe Today, and be sure to join in to the Virtual Star Party every Sunday Night… Saturn is sure to be featured!