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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Moon to Occult Jupiter in Rare July 15th, 2012 Event

A rare, major and hugely memorable event will occur early in the morning of Sunday, July 15th when the moon passes in front of the planet Jupiter (astronomers call this an "occultation") blocking it from view for about an hour. As the moon then moves eastward in its monthly orbit around the earth, Jupiter will be uncovered about an hour later. This event is not receiving much publicity because it will not be visible from the US, but the Middle East and Africa will have a front row seat. In addition to Jupiter, the four bright moons of Jupiter, the "Galilean satellites", will also be occulted in the course of this event. This is a very rare  event, although as of this writing I don't know when the next occultation of Jupiter will be visible from Israel.

The moon, Jupiter and Venus as seen on the morning of June 17, 2012, rising above Mitzpe Ramon. The moon just missed Jupiter on this pass. On the early morning of July 15th at 4:01AM IDT the moon will pass in front of Jupiter, occulting it.
The tableau in the east in the early morning sky is already quite stunning. Jupiter, with Venus below it, shine brightly like beacons with the Pleiades star cluster above and the Hyades star cluster below, and ruby-red star Aldeberan (Alpha Tauri) set like a jewel at the bottom. Really, this alone is worth rising early to see. But on the morning of July 15th, starting about 3:30AM, this tableau will rise in the east with the waning, crescent  moon accompanying the entourage. Beginning at 4:01AM, the moon will cover Jupiter and it's Galilean satellites over the course of a few minutes, blotting them out of the sky. About an hour later they will pop out from behind the moon one by one. All the angels will sing, "Hosannah in the Highest!"

How the sky will look on the morning of July 15, 2012, 4:01AM IDT, from Israel, just after the occultation begins. This star map doesn't even begin to hint at the glory in the east at this event.
These occultations are memorable events just when seen with the naked eye. The proximity of so many bright heavenly bodies near each other is one of the most beautiful sights the sky has to offer. Through any kind of optical instrument the grandeur is even greater. You will need at least binoculars to see the Galilean satellites occulted. A telescope, of almost any size, will show much more, including the cloud-striped disk of Jupiter as it slides behind the bright, crater-scared rim of the moon and reappears from behind the dark side of the moon. I remember every occultation I have ever observed and treasure them as my dearest astronomical memories. You don't have to be in Miztpe Ramon to see this, or even have especially dark skies. But you will need a very clear eastern horizon, since all of these objects will have just risen about 30 minutes before the occultation begins.

An occultation of Jupiter by the moon. Animated gif by Don Parker.
This event will occur low in the east starting at 4:01AM IDT on Sunday morning July 15th and the occultation will end about an hour later, close to sunrise. I will be out all night with my telescopes and binoculars and all are welcome to join me, no cost. This will be an open star party. I hope other amateurs will join with their telescopes. As of this writing I plan to be at the last JNF forest on the left of the road heading up to the Wise observatory, about 1 KM from the Wise observatory on the plateau overlooking Machtesh Ramon. There is a turn-off from the road there that leads to a short dirt road that goes around the forest to where I will be. Check back for any last minute changes.

"Ira" is where the Starman of Mitzpe Ramon currently plans to be on the morning of July 15th in Mitzpe Ramon.

Good luck viewing and remember to "Keep on lookin' up!"

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