On the morning of August 13 – 14 (depending on where you were in the world) the Moon slipped directly in front of Venus in the sky, an event called an occultation. It was cloudy here in Boulder so I missed it, but halfway across the world in Korea, astrophotographer Kwon O Chul had a magnificent view, and made this lovely time lapse video of the event.
Occultations like this are relatively rare. If all the planets and moons orbited the Sun in exactly the same plane – that is, if you looked at the solar system from the side and all the orbits aligned perfectly, like looking at a DVD from the side – we’d see occultations all the time.
But in reality all the orbits are tilted a little bit. Venus circles the Sun in an orbit canted by about 3° compared to Earth’s. The Moon’s orbit is tilted by 5 °. The Moon orbits the Earth once per month or so, but it usually passes by Venus, missing it by a bit because the orbits aren’t aligned. But sometimes, every few years, the dance comes together, and the Moon wil slip directly in front of Venus.
An occultation is an amazing thing to see. I saw a lunar Venus occultation when I was a kid and just starting out as an amateur astronomer. It takes a few seconds for the Moon to cover a planet, so you can watch as the planet dims and then pops out when it gets completely covered. Also, the Moon commonly passes in front of stars, which are so far away and appear so small they just wink out, blip!
You can get a list of upcoming occultations at the International Occultation Timing Association website. If you get a chance to see the Moon occult a star, take it! Binoculars help a lot, and it’s fun to watch the star just suddenly blink out.
Tip o’ the dew shield to Astropixie.