Double Occultation!

No, it’s not some double whammy cult thing. It’s about a stellar event that I missed, but it’s not my fault. The fact that I couldn’t see it has vexed me so, but there was nothing for it. Unless you were in orbit looking out a window, gazing at the heavens in a way we on Earth can’t, there was no way to see it. Unless you have a clever app in your tablet.

It all began with a view of the sky as I left work. It was close to seven pm and the sun had just passed the horizon, leaving behind it darkening colors of reds and blues. I walked out the door of the job ready to go home and happened to look up. What I saw was a crescent moon about a quarter of the way to the horizon. Next to it was a bright star, and below it, almost to the horizon, was a brighter star. I figured the brightest thing in the sky this early had to be planets, and I thought the brighter one towards the bottom was Jupiter, but I couldn’t place the other one. At first I though it was Mars, but it was the wrong color.

So I get home and check this clever app in my tablet. It’s called Star Walk, and it tracks the stars, planets, satellites, the ISS, some asteroids, and all in real time. The real cool thing about it is, let’s say you’re looking at something and you want to know what it is. You can hold up your tablet next to what you’re seeing and identify it. If you turn in any direction the app rolls along with it, keeping everything in track and letting you change directions with zero lag.

I start it up and aim it at what I saw, and it turns out that the bottom bright star was Venus, and the one next to the moon was Jupiter. Imagine my surprise, as Venus isn’t a planet you can see a lot of, mostly because it’s closer to the sun and the light from that big yellow orb drowns out everything. I know I’ve never seen it before, so I was pleasantly surprised, both by the view of seeing them like that, and the revelation.

A couple of days go by and I notice something interesting. Venus and Jupiter are moving closer together. They’re practically side-by-side. Now I’m getting excited. Is some planetary event about to happen? Will I be able to see it? I don’t know, but now I’m really paying attention.

The next day is cloudy, so whatever show was about to happen was canceled. Well, canceled for me, but the event continued. Exactly what just happened you ask? Well thanks to my trusty clever app, the answer came quickly and easily. I draw your attention to this picture:

Another cool thing about the app is it allows you to scroll through time. I’ve rolled through time forward and back to track the moon in it’s phases. I’m even able to key in dates for, say, my birthday, to see where my zodiac was. In this case I rolled back to see what I missed, and I missed something big.

The date and time for this event is on the top right of the image, March 2nd, 2:23am Eastern. The dashed line running from left to right is the orbital plane, where all of the planets line up to the Sun. And on this plane are six planets, one after the other, except for two of them.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. An occultation is when one planet moves in front of another. Like an eclipse, but without the Sun’s involvement, well at least to us here on Earth. And this image is showing two of them at the same time.

On the far right you will see Mercury in front of Saturn. Left of that is the Sun. Then you have Neptune, then Venus in front of Jupiter! Then further left you have Uranus (he he). That’s six planets in close proximity, and four of them are going through occultation! Do you know how rare that is? In a word, very.

Now here’s the part that vexes me. There was no way for me to see it because it happened below the horizon! I would have to be on another part of the planet to even get a glimpse. But let’s say I was on the right side of the planet. I still wouldn’t see it because of that big yellow orb second from the left, drowning out everything and turning the sky blue. Perhaps if you were in the right spot so the sun would be down enough to get a good view. I, however, was not there.

So I missed something big. I had to rant about it, because it was eating me up inside. Here I claim to be something of a star watcher, and a really cool event almost gets by me. Actually it did get by me, thanks to the weather, timing, and positioning. But at least I have this picture. Maybe I’ll use it as a screen backdrop.

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