Occultation Palooza: The Moon Covers Aldebaran and More

Aldebaran

This week, we thought we’d try an experiment for tonight’s occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon. As mentioned, we’re expanding the yearly guide for astronomical events for the year in 2017. We’ve done this guide in various iterations since 2009, starting on Astroguyz and then over to Universe Today, and it has grown from a simple Top 10 list, to a full scale preview of what’s on tap for the following year.

You, the reader, have made this guide grow over the years, as we incorporate feedback we’ve received.

Anyhow, we thought we’d lay out this week’s main astro-event in a fashion similar to what we have planned for the guide: each of the top 101 events will have a one page entry (two pages for the top 10 events) with a related graphic, fun facts, etc.

So in guide format, tonight’s occultation of Aldebaran would break down like this:

Wednesday, September 21st: The Moon Occults Aldebaran

Image credit Occult 4.2

The 67% illuminated waning gibbous Moon occults the +0.9 magnitude star Aldebaran. The Moon is two days prior to Last Quarter phase during the event. Both are located 109 degrees west of the Sun at the time of the event. The central time of conjunction is 22:37 Universal Time (UT). The event occurs during the daylight hours over southeast Asia, China, Japan and the northern Philippines and under darkness for India, Pakistan and the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa. The Moon will next occult Aldebaran on October 19th. This is occultation 23 in the current series of 49 running from January 29th 2015 to September 3rd, 2018. This is one of the more central occultations of Aldebaran by the Moon for 2016.

india-view

The view from India tonight, just before the occultation begins. Image credit: Stellarium

Fun Fact-In the current century, (2001-2100 AD) the Moon occults Aldebaran 247 times, topped only by Antares (386 times) and barely beating out Spica (220 times).

Or maybe, another fun fact could be: A frequent setting for science fiction sagas, Aldebaran is now also often confused in popular culture with Alderaan, Princess Leia’s late homeworld from the Star Wars saga.

Like it? Thoughts, suggestions, complaints?

Now for the Wow! Factor for tonight’s occultation. Aldebaran is 65 light years distant, meaning the light we’re seeing left the star in 1951 before getting photobombed by the Moon just over one second before reaching the Earth.

There are also lots of other occultations of fainter stars worldwide over the next 24 hours, as the Moon crosses the Hyades.

And follow that Moon, as a series of 20 occultations of the bright star Regulus during every lunation begins later this year on December 18th.

Gadi Eidelheit managed to catch the March 14th, 2016 daytime occultation of Aldebaran from Haifa, Israel:

And also in the ‘Moon passing in front of things’ department, here’s a noble attempt at capturing a difficult occultation of Neptune by the Moon last week on September 15th, courtesy of Veijo Timonen based in Hämeenlinna Finland:

Lets see, that’s a +8th magnitude planet next to a brilliant -13th magnitude Moon, one million (15 magnitudes) times brighter… it’s amazing you can see Neptune at all!

Last item: tomorrow marks the September (southward) equinox, ushering in the start of astronomical fall in the northern hemisphere, and the beginning of Spring in the southern. The precise minute of equinoctial crossing is 14:21 UT. In the 21st century, the September equinox can fall anywhere from September 21st to September 23rd. Bob King has a great recent write-up on the equinox and the Moon.

Don’t miss tonight’s passage of Aldebaran through the Hyades, and there’s lots more where that came from headed into 2017!

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See a Wonderful Aldebaran Occultation with a Spectacular Twist

Stellarium

We’re in for a celestial show from two of the sky’s glitterati this week. On Friday morning July 29 around 10:00 UT (5 a.m. CDT), the crescent Moon will occult the star Aldebaran from the eastern and southern U.S. south of a line from Toledo, Ohio through St. Louis, Tulsa and El Paso, Texas. North of that line, the Moon will slide just south of the star in a spectacular conjunction. But the real action lies within a half-mile of either side of the line, where lucky observers will see a grazing occultation.

As the Moon’s orbital motion carries it eastward at the rate of one lunar diameter per hour, Aldebaran will appear to approach the sunlit northern cusp and then scrape along the Moon’s northern limb. You’ll need binoculars or a small telescope to see the initial approach, but once star reaches the semi-dark, earthlit portion of the Moon, the graze will be visible with the naked eye.

The edge or limb of the Moon appears smooth to the eye, but it’s rife with polar mountain peaks. As Aldebaran creeps along the craggy limb, it will repeatedly flash in and out of view as peaks and cliffs momentarily block it from sight. And here’s the truly amazing thing. Observers along the western section of the graze line, where the event takes place in fairly dark sky, can watch the star blink in and out of view without optical aid when it reaches the dark part of the lunar disk. Wow!

Aldebaran is no small star. An orange giant 67 light years from Earth, it’s 44 times the diameter of the Sun. That means that sometimes only a part of the star at a time will covered at a time in some cases, so the length of the flashes will vary. According to David Dunham, president of the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA), Aldebaran will disappear for one-tenth of a second up to a second as the Moon rolls east, allowing some observers to sense the size of the star. Wow x 100!

Skywatchers further east along the graze line and in other areas where the occultation / conjunction takes place after sunrise shouldn’t pass up the chance to see the event. During last October’s occultation of Aldebaran, I was able to see and photograph the star in my 10-inch scope in daylight no problem. The moon will be closer to the Sun this time around, but give it try anyway. This is the best grazing occultation of Aldebaran visible from North America in the current 4-year series.

For the many who live either north or south of the graze line, the views will still be fantastic. You’ll either see an occultation and subsequent reappearance of the star at the dark limb … or a fine conjunction. The forecast looks good for my city, so I plan on heading out to watch an orange giant meet the skinny Moon. I wish you clear skies and happy shooting!

For more information about the event including detailed weather forecasts and grazing maps, check out the IOTA’s public announcement pageClick here for Universal Times for the disappearance and reappearance of the star for over 1,000 cities.

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Celestial Photobomb: Rare Occultation of Mercury by the Moon Set for Next Week

Mercury and the Moon over the ramparts of Assilah, Morocco. Photo by author

Have you caught sight of Mercury yet? This coming week is a good time to try, looking low to the west at dusk. We just managed to to nab it with binoculars for the first time during the current apparition this past Sunday from the rooftop of our Air BnB in Casablanca, Morocco.

Mercury is a tough grab under any circumstance, that’s for sure. Brilliant Venus and Jupiter make great guides to finding the elusive planet in late July, as it ping-pongs between the two. The waxing crescent Moon joins the scene in the first week of August, and for a very lucky few, actually occults (passes in front of ) the diminutive innermost world shortly after passing New.

Here’s the low down on everything Mercurial, and circumstances for the coming weeks.

Mercury passes 18′ from the star Regulus on Saturday, July 30th at 19:00 Universal Time (UT), representing the closest passage of a planet near a first magnitude star for 2016.

The Moon then reaches New phase, marking the start of lunation 1158 on August 2nd at 20:45 UT. The Moon then moves on to occult Mercury on Thursday, August 4th at 22:00 UT, just over 48 hours later. The occultation is visible at dusk for observers based in southern Chile and southern Argentina. The rest of us see a close pass. Note that although it is a miss for North America, viewers based on the continent share the same colongitude and will see Mercury only a degree off of the northern limb of the Moon on the night of August 4th. Mercury shines at magnitude +0.01, and presents a 67% illuminated disk 6.3” in size, while the Moon is a slender 5% illuminated.

How early can you see the waxing crescent Moon? Catching the Moon with the naked eye under transparent clear skies isn’t usually difficult when it passes 20 hours old. This cycle, first sightings favor South Africa westward on the night of August 3rd.

Mercury reaches greatest elongation 27.4 degrees east of the Sun 12 days after this occultation on August 16th.

How rare is it? Well occultations of Mercury by the Moon are the toughest to catch of all the naked eye planets, owing to the fact that the planet never strays far from the Sun. Nearly all of these events go unwitnessed, as they occur mainly under daytime skies. And while you can observe Mercury in the daytime near greatest elongation with a telescope, safety precautions need to be taken to assure the Sun is physically blocked from view. Astronomers of yore did exactly that, hoping to glimpse fleeting detail on Mercury while it was perched higher in the sky above the murk of the atmosphere low to the horizon.

In fact, a quick search of ye ole web reveals very few convincing captures of an occultation of Mercury (see the video above). The closest grab thus far comes from astrophotographer Cory Schmitz on June 3rd 2016 based in South Africa:

Can’t wait til next week? The Moon crosses the Hyades open star cluster this week, occulting several stars along the way. The action occurs on the morning of Friday, July 29th culminating with an occultation of +1 magnitude Aldebaran by the 23% illuminated Moon. Texas and Mexico are well-placed to see this event under dark skies. A small confession: we actually prefer occultations of planets and stars by the waxing Moon, as the dark edge of the Moon is leading during ingress, making it much easier to witness and the exact moment the Moon blots out the object.

Still want more? The Moon actually goes on to occult Jupiter on August 6th for the South Pacific. Viewers farther west in southeast Asia might just spy this one in the daytime. This is the second occultation of Jupiter by the Moon in a series of four in 2016.

Keep and eye on those planets in August, as they’re now all currently visible in the dusk sky. The Moon, Regulus and Venus also form a tight five degree triangle on the evening of August 4th, followed by a slightly wider grouping of Venus, Jupiter and the Moon around August 25th.

More to come on that soon. Be sure to check the planet Mercury off of your life list this coming week, using the nearby waxing crescent Moon as a guide.

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