Eclipses of the Third Kind

Damn the Solar System. Bad light; planets too distant; pestered with comets; feeble contrivance; could make a better myself.

Lord Francis Jeffrey (1773-1850)

So far we've looked at two basic types of eclipse: solar and lunar. Our Sun is not the only star whose face the Moon can pass across though. Every month the Moon, in its passage around the Earth, blocks out the light from some millions of stars in the Milky Way, and many extragalactic objects, too, each reappearing about an hour later behind the trailing limb of the Moon.

Most of these remote light sources are extremely faint, but every so often the Moon will obscure some particularly bright star, and numerous amateur astronomers will be keen to witness the event. The target might be Regulus, the bright white star in the constellation Leo, or Aldebaran, the vivid red object in Taurus, or some other familiar heavenly jewel. Nor do the planets escape alignment with the Moon: because they occupy a restricted band about the ecliptic, they, too, are frequently blotted out for a brief time.

One may think of these as "eclipses of the third kind," but there is a specific astronomical term attached to them: occultations.

This is an area of astronomy in which amateurs are able to make vital contributions to our knowledge base.

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