38 degrees today in Duluth with a chill wind off Lake Superior. Must be May again. Time for the Flower Moon, the traditional name given to May’s full moon. Such a lovely moniker but nearly always lost on this frozen outpost I call home.
Tonight the moon’s in that awkward phase between half and full called gibbous, but tomorrow night it will shine nearly full and round in the southern sky just a few degrees to the right or west of Saturn. When full on the 14th, the moon will move to the opposite side of the planet.
Moon-Saturn occultation from Perth, Australia Feb. 22, 2014 captured by Colin Legg
While a moon-planet conjunction isn’t unusual, an occultation is. This time around, skywatchers in Australia and New Zealand are in the right location to watch the moon hide or ‘occult’ Saturn for about an hour early Weds. evening May 14 Australian time.
U.S. and Canadian observers can watch the waxing moon slowly approach Saturn overnight Tuesday. The best views will be had at the onset of dawn on the West Coast where only a degree (two full moon diameters) will separate the two early Wednesday.
If you could move fast enough to the west to avoid encroaching daylight and south to raise the moon a tad higher against the starry backdrop, you’d find yourself in Australia Wednesday night watching the moon slowly slide over the planet Saturn.
Planet occultations are awesome events to watch through a telescope because they give us an inkling of what it’s like to see a planet ‘set’ and ‘rise’ over an alien landscape, a place other than Earth.
What am I talking about? As the moon approaches Saturn, the planet will appear to ‘set’ as the bright edge of the moon encroaches and slowly nibbles away at Saturn until only a ringtip remains. Once the planet disappears, observers must wait about an hour for it to reappear on the moon’s other side, when it ‘rises’ from the limb by degrees until it’s in the clear once more. A wonderful sight!
I’ve seen occultations of Jupiter and Saturn and wouldn’t miss another except for the expense and time of flying to Australia. Closer to home, I’m game anytime.
Happily, we all can be close to home for this event. Astrophysicist Gianluca Masi will broadcast the occultation live online from his Virtual Telescope website beginning at 10:15 a.m. Universal Time May 14 or 6:15 a.m. EDT, 5:15 a.m. CDT, 4:15 MDT and 3:15 PDT. Yes, that’s early, but I know some of you may want to catch it.
Meanwhile, if you live in Australia or New Zealand and are reading this, click the map above for a list of times for individual cities when Saturn disappears and reappears.
Six more moon-Saturn occultations occur this year but none are visible in North America. Curious about future events? Peruse this list when you have a few free minutes.
Even if northerners have to wait a while for the next planetary occultation, we can still enjoy Saturn flirting with the Flower Moon two nights in a row. Plus there’s a consolation prize! Look at the moon through binoculars tomorrow night (May 13) and less than a moon-diameter south you’ll spot the best-named double star in the whole sky: Zubenelgenubi (zoo-BEN-el-je-NEW-bee). Even binoculars can split this one.