Monday, December 21, 2015

"Moon's strange companion" - Cairns, Queensland - 6 July 1945

Hi readers,

In a previous post I looked at an observation made near Manjimup, Western Australia and failed to make an identification of the reported object. Further browsing of TROVE led me to another apparent mystery.

The Saturday 7 July 1945 edition of the "Cairns Post" [Qld: 1909-1954] on page 5, carried the following story:

"Moon's strange companion.
At 8am yesterday R.A.A.F. meteorologists at the aerodrome noticed  a minute, star-like object in the sky only a short distance from the moon and apparently on the same plane. At noon the tiny shape was still beside the moon which it had followed on its course, maintaining an almost constant position in relation to the heavenly body.

Intrigued by the phenomenon, the Air Force observed it through a theodolite, which made it appear completely balloon shaped. That would have solved the problem of its identity: it might have been a weather balloon had it not so persistently followed the moon.

Weather experts argued that it was too bright a day for a star to be perceptible, and also the object was not luminous and that since the sun was shining on it must be within the same atmospheric plane.

One suggestion was that it was a planet which, owing to peculiar atmospheric conditions had suddenly become visible. A telescope inspection, too proved ineffective."

After reading the entire article, I had a very good idea of what the minute, star-like object was. However, I checked with two electronic star charts to be sure.
At 8am on that day, the moon was at elevation 54 degrees and azimuth 25 degrees east of north. What was at elevation 52 degrees and azimuth 28 degrees east of north? The answer was, the planet Venus.
During the day, as the sky rotated (of course actually it is the Earth which rotates), both the moon and the planet Venus would have moved together across the sky.
 Interestingly, the planet Mars was also near the moon that day. However, due to its lesser brightness than Venus, it would not have been visible to the naked eye.
Why was not Venus immediately suspected as the cause of the observation? I believe it is because most people do not know that you can sometimes see the planet Venus in broad daylight with the naked eye. In clear skies, I have seen Venus during the day on several occasions. Mostly, I checked an astronomical chart first and found where it was in relation to the sun. However, once I found it by accident during the middle of the afternoon.
In this instance at Cairns, I believe that the observers' eyes would have been attracted to Venus as it was near the clearly visible moon.
You will note, that there was a suggestion in the newspaper article that it might have been a planet, but Venus was not specifically mentioned.
Observation solved!
A similar event
 Page 5 of the "Kalgoorlie Miner" [WA:1895-1950] for Friday 19 November 1909, reported:
"An Unusual Phenomenon.
Port Hedland Nov 18.
An extraordinary astronomical phenomenon was witnessed here yesterday, the sun, moon and a brilliant star near the moon being all visible from 10.30am to 4pm."
At 10.30am that day, the moon was at elevation 27 degrees, at azimuth 20 degrees south of east. What was at elevation 26 degrees, azimuth 20 degrees south of east? The planet Venus.
Second observation solved!

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