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Moon, Saturn jockey for prime-time position

The ringed planet just before disappearing behind the moon in November.
The ringed planet just before disappearing behind the moon in November.  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- The ringed planet will skirt behind the quarter moon Wednesday evening in a display specially tailored for much of North America.

Saturn has disappeared behind the moon many times in recent months, but for viewers in the Eastern United States, none of the spectacles will compare with this one after sunset.

Observing pitfalls in the region marred most of the earlier planetary eclipses, or occultations. The moon was too bright. The hour was too late. It happened during daylight hours.

But the viewing conditions should prove ideal on February 20, barring local troubles with the weather. Saturn is almost at its brightest magnitude for the year. The moon will have just completed its quarter phase, not too bright for pleasing astronomical viewing.

For most European sky watchers, Saturn and the moon will have already dipped below the western horizon when the event takes place.

Viewers in thin stretches of the Iberian Peninsula and Northwest Africa could catch a glimpse, according to Kelly Beatty, editor of Sky & Telescope Magazine.

Where one can watch the show in North America  (Courtesy Sky & Telescope)

But the prime place to view the disappearing act will be the Eastern United States, Eastern Canada and parts of the Caribbean, where it will occur after sunset.

After vanishing behind the darkened portion of the moon, Saturn will reappear on the other side about an hour or so later, depending on location.

A bonus treat for discerning sky watchers, particularly with binoculars, will be the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters, flanking the moon-Saturn pair.

In the United States, the occultation will take place at night in the Northeast and at twilight in the Deep South and Midwest. The Far West will be out of luck. It will still be daylight.

On Saturday, The moon will perform an encore performance, but with a different partner. This time, Jupiter will duck behind the lunar disk in the predawn hours over Europe.




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