Of Particular Significance

Mars Meets the Moon

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 12/07/2022

A break from all these wormholes and strings; let’s take a moment to look at the sky. In the US, sadly, most of the country will be under cloud, but for those who aren’t, you have a spectacle tonight, at around 10-11pm Eastern Time in the US, roughly 5-6 am UT in Northern Europe.

It’s not terribly unusual for the Moon to pass in front of a planet and block it, from the point of view of some of us on Earth. This time it is Mars’ turn. You’ll be able to see the Moon eclipsing Mars (a “lunar occultation” of Mars), weather permitting, in the region shown below. This map is taken from in-the-sky.org, where you can enter your location and find out exactly when you’ll see Mars disappear behind the Moon and then reappear.

Visibility of tonight’s occultation of Mars by the Moon. See in-the-sky.org for more details.

This should be fun even with the naked eye — Mars won’t disappear in an instant but will do so gradually — but it will be better with binoculars, and great in a small telescope. It will give you a chance to see that yes, the Moon is in slow, steady motion in the sky relative to the planets, which (being further) seem to move more slowly. Lunar and solar eclipses provide a similar opportunity to observe this motion, but I think occultations provide the clearest sense of it.

The Full Moon can be seen from south to north across the Earth. Why isn’t the occultation visible everywhere? It is because the Moon is smaller than the Earth, as I explained here as part of my series on “Do It Yourself Astronomy”. In a sense, the light of Mars effectively (though not literally) casts the Moon’s shadow onto the Earth, and the shadow’s width — the width of the region over which the occultation is visible — would be the same as the diameter of the Moon, were the occultation visible close to the Earth’s equator. (As I pointed out, you can use this fact to measure the Moon’s size without ever leaving the Earth.) Because tonight’s occultation is visible closer to the poles, the region of visibility on the Earth’s surface is distorted by the Earth’s curvature, making it larger than the Moon by about 50% — about 3000 miles (5000 km) or so. (That’s yet more evidence that the Earth’s not flat, in case you needed some.)

Finally, there’s something quite remarkable about this occultation. It occurs close to two special moments:

  1. almost at full Moon (within a few hours);
  2. almost at “Mars opposition” (within a few hours) — when Mars is (nearly) closest, brightest and highest in the midnight sky, as brilliant as it gets over its cycle.

Since (1) happens once a month, and (2) happens once every two years, and occultations don’t occur all the time, this seems like quite a coincidence!

Only… it’s not as big a coincidence as it looks. A puzzler for you: why isn’t it a coincidence that (1) and (2) happen at the same time? That is, if there’s an lunar occultation of Mars at full Moon, why must Mars be nearly at opposition? [Hint: it’s just geometry.]

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