A Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Although I’ve seen 77 eclipses ranging from total solars to penumbral lunars, three transits, and several stellar occultations, I had yet to see a planet occulted by the Moon. Thus, I was excited by the prospect of seeing the waning crescent Moon swing over Venus in the predawn sky last Wednesday morning, April 22nd. While the occultation was visible from much of North America, it was only in the west that the ingress would take place in a completely dark sky.

While observers across much of North America had a chance to see Venus disappear behind the crescent Moon on Wednesday morning, April 22, only those in the west could see the event in a predawn sky. This view is by Dave Weixelman of Nevada City, California. Check out our online Gallery to see more images of the event sent by Sky & Telescope readers.
Dave Weixelman
So with the chance to add something new and different to my observing accomplishments, I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. (Oh-dark thirty, as a friend once commented). But I stepped outside to see the first cloudy sky in several days. Somewhat crestfallen, I walked to the observatory to go through the motions. However, as my eyes because more dark adapted, I could see that there was a small break in the clouds toward the east. Suddenly there was an opening that allowed me a spectacular view of the Moon and Venus separated by about a fifth of a degree. I set up “Flaire,” one of my telescopes used for imaging. The cloud wasn’t moving very much, but Venus and the Moon were rising toward it, and within a few minutes the pairing disappeared from view. It was starting to look like I’d miss the occultation.

I was disappointed, but missing an occultation wasn’t as disappointing as, say, missing a total solar eclipse. These things happen, I told myself. It’s not going to make me give away all my telescopes and take up a career as an accountant. As I looked up at the cloudy sky I thought about some of the proverbs from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Proverbs like “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings;” “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom;” and “He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.” These were worthy thoughts to consider in this International Year of astronomy as I watched a sky full of clouds, and no occultation.

But the sky was dynamic that morning. Clouds overhead were thickening and thinning, allowing stars behind them to appear and vanish. Then, almost on cue, the cloud to the east began to dissipate just a bit. It revealed a brightening.

Then it happened. The cloud thinned further, and the crescent Moon burst forth with part of brilliant Venus shining on its limb! The ingress had begun, but it wasn’t finished. While not exactly rivaling the diamond ring during a total eclipse of the Sun, Venus slipping behind the Moon’s limb is one of the most stunning sights I’ve seen in all my years of stargazing.

Half a minute later it was over. The thin Moon resumed its normal appearance. Venus was hidden from view. The clouds thickened once more. On this night, it took only an instant to capture one of nature’s most glorious wonders.

5 thoughts on “A Marriage of Heaven and Hell

  1. Bruce Frahm

    It was difficult to believe I’d observed something David Levy hadn’t — a lunar occultation of one of our planets. One of my first ones had an unusual ‘highlight’.

    Sometime early in my observing days — probably around 1972 — I was set up watching the moon occult Jupiter using my Edmund 6″ Netonian. It seems like the moon was slightly gibbous. As I watched the ingress reach the halfway point, suddenly all hell broke loose in my eyepiece, like somehow the occultation had caused the moon to explode !?! Looking up quickly at the moon I discovered that a jetliner just happened to intersect the scene from my vantage point. Quickly returning to the ocular, I observed lingering effects of the contrail and heat waves, then soon returned my attention to Jupiter and its moons slipping from view.

  2. Bruce Frahm

    It was difficult to believe I’d observed something David Levy hadn’t — a lunar occultation of one of our planets. One of my first ones had an unusual ‘highlight’.

    Sometime early in my observing days — probably around 1972 — I was set up watching the moon occult Jupiter using my Edmund 6″ Netonian. It seems like the moon was slightly gibbous. As I watched the ingress reach the halfway point, suddenly all hell broke loose in my eyepiece, like somehow the occultation had caused the moon to explode !?! Looking up quickly at the moon I discovered that a jetliner just happened to intersect the scene from my vantage point. Quickly returning to the ocular, I observed lingering effects of the contrail and heat waves, then soon returned my attention to Jupiter and its moons slipping from view.

  3. Vernon Whetstone

    Mr. Levy, I feel your pain. I too have been all set up and waiting for a marvelous rare astronomical event to occur only to have the clouds roll in and spoil the whole thing.

    However, this time such was not the case. I was able to observe the occultation from my deck in southwest Nebraska even though the event took place after sunrise. I began tracking the Moon before the Sun was up so I knew where it was and had a great view.The only bad part, my telescope is not equiped to take photographs, alas. Although Christmas is coming and I have put in my requests.

    As with most things astronomical, we take them as they come, or don’t come.

  4. James Scott Heine

    Mr. David Levy, to quote ex-President Clinton: I feel your pain. There are some astronomical events I haven’t seen either. I have seen all types of lunar eclipses (man, they’re fun) and I’ve seen partial and annular solar eclipses as well – but not a total one yet, unless you count seeing one live on TV on February 26, 1979. I have seen Jupiter’s moons transit the planet itself, and I’ve seen them get eclipsed and occulted many times. I’ve seen many comets – some that you discovered like Okazawa-Levi-Rudenko in 1989, Levy 1990, and the aftereffects of the smashed Shoemaker-Levy 9 entering the Jovian atmosphere. Of course I’ve also seen comets Halley, Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp, but not McDonnell (sp?) from a few years back (cloudy winter skies!). Still, not having seen all types of sky activity adds to the appeal of the hobby. I’ve seen many lunar eclipses but I relive the thrill every time I see one. It never gets old, same for other events. Who knows what surprise God will pull out of the hat next? Sometimes I get lucky like you do. Keep cool.

  5. James Scott Heine

    Oh yeah, I saw the Moon occult the planet Saturn in 1997. You had to be VERY dilligent at the telescope, it was now you see it – now you don’t! That’s the only time I’ve the Moon occult a planet so far. I’d certainly love to see that kind of event again.

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