Clouds May Scotch Tomorrow’s Rare Erigone-Regulus Occultation

North America’s brightest predicted asteroid occultation may be one-upped by a much bigger occultation – a solid blanket of clouds. Asteroid 163 Erigone will cover or occult the bright star Regulus shortly after 2 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time tomorrow morning March 20. Observers along a 45-mile-wide (73-km) belt stretching from the wilderness of Nunavut to the salty seas of Bermuda could see the star vanish for up to 14 seconds. Provided they can find a hole in the clouds.

National forecast map for 8 p.m. EDT tonight March 19. A low pressure region is expected to bring rain and snow to the Northeast and Ontario today and overnight with clearing skies later tomorrow. Click for latest New York City weather forecast. Credit: NOAA

Overcast skies with a mix of rain or snow are predicted along virtually the entire track from the tiny berg of Cochrane in northern Ontario south through New York City, Connecticut and New Jersey. A sluggish cold front isn’t expected to clear skies until … no surprise here … after the event is over.

Bermuda, perhaps the best place to watch the occultation, crosses the eastern edge (blue line) of the asteroid’s shadow. The red line marks one sigma of uncertainty in the shadow edge. Credit: Google Maps/IOTA

But there is one place where maybe, just maybe, the clouds may part to let Erigone do its job. Bermuda.  The Bermuda Weather Service forecast calls for highs in the low 70s mid-week, but that balmy air may come packaged with a partly to mostly cloudy sky at the time of the occultation. A few determined observers are on their way there right now, hoping for better weather. In case the islands are socked in, some plan to rent planes to rise above the low-lying clouds typical this time of year and revel in the shadow of an asteroid. Even if clear, Bermuda lies near the eastern edge of the path. Any occultation there will be brief.

Illustration showing asteroid 163 Erigone about to cover Leo’s brightest star Regulus around 2:07 Eastern Daylight Time Thursday morning March 20, 2014. As the asteroid’s shadow passes over the ground, observers will see Regulus briefly disappear. Illustration: Bob King with ESO/NASA images

Yes, there will be more occultations, but bright ones that the public can enjoy with the naked eye are rare.

Skywatchers are nothing if not hopeful. We believe in the sucker hole, the name given to rogue clearings in an otherwise overcast sky. We are patient and steadfast when it comes to glimpsing the rarest of the rare. I know this because my friends and I have stood outside on winter mornings staring at the western sky, waiting for clouds to peel back that we might glimpse a Martian dust storm or new comet.

If it does clear tomorrow, face southwest shortly before 2 a.m. to find Leo’s brightest star Regulus. The star will be about 40 degrees high (four ‘fists’ held at arm’s length against the sky). Above is the the Sickle of Leo, shaped like a backwards question mark. Brilliant Jupiter shines well to its lower right. Stellarium

If there’s an astronomer’s credo, it’s this: “The sky might clear yet!” The latest weather word (9 a.m. March 19) for U.S. and Canadian observers indicates thinner clouds along the southern end of the track in New Jersey. Many of us considered driving to the event but changed our minds because of work, worries about weather and other commitments. Assuming the credo holds true, you’ll be able to watch Regulus disappear live from the comfort of your home thanks to the efforts of several observers planning to stream the event on the Web.

Here’s a list of streamers so far:

Brad Timerson plans to go live with audio at 2 a.m. at a rest area along I-90 just west of Syracuse, NY.

Ted Blank on UStream

Steve Preston will broadcast an image of his camcorder screen

Vagelis Tsamis will try to broadcast from Canada

* SLOOH

As always, everything depends on the weather. Let’s hope Mother Nature loses focus and lets a little clear sky slip by.

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

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