Lunar occultation awaits stargazers

What are your plans for the early hours of Friday morning?

Whatever they may be, may I suggest you drop them and focus your attention on trying to spot an inspiring and somewhat rare astronomical event that will take place shortly after midnight on April 26.

Ian Griffin
Ian Griffin
I'm talking about a lunar occultation. This is the name given to the passage of the moon in front of a more distant object.

On Friday, that far-off body is the planet Saturn, whose ring system is wide open at present, meaning stargazers across New Zealand are in for a dramatic few minutes when the bright limb of the waxing gibbous moon slowly hides the incredibly beautiful ringed planet.

As an added bonus, if you have a moderately sized telescope, you can watch the moon cover some of Saturn's moons as well.

To get the best view of the occultation, you will need binoculars or, better still, a telescope.

Make sure you are set up well before the event and carefully focus on the moon. By 12.40am you should see the planet Saturn and some of its brighter satellites approaching the bright limb of the moon, which means the action is about to begin. At 12.44am and 30sec, Saturn's brightest moon, Titan, will blink out, and over the next few minutes, Saturn's other moons Tethys and Mimas will be covered by the advancing lunar limb.

In Dunedin, first contact (the moment when the moon starts to hide Saturn) is scheduled for almost exactly 12.47am, and it will take the moon nearly 90sec to completely conceal the planet.

This should be a spectacular sight, and I for one will certainly be trying to take some pictures of the event.

It's incredible to think that while the objects appear close together in the sky, they are actually very far apart; at the moment the occultation begins the moon is just over 395,000km from Earth, whereas Saturn is more than a billion kilometres away.

About an hour after it disappears, at approximately 1.46am, Saturn will reappear on the other side of the moon.

-By Ian Griffin

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