This Week: Occultations of Aldebaran, Regulus vs. the Supermoon

Aldebaran Occultation

It’s a busy week for the Moon. While our large solitary natural satellite reaches Full and interferes with the 2016 Geminids, it’s also beginning a series of complex bright star occultations of Aldebaran and Regulus, giving us a taste of things to come in 2017.

First up, here’s the lowdown on this week’s occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon, coming right up tonight:

Aldebaran Occultation
The footprint for tonight’s occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon. You can find specific ingress and egress times for major cities near you on the IOTA event page. Credit: Occult 4.2.

The 99% illuminated waxing gibbous Moon occults the +0.9 magnitude star Aldebaran on Monday, December 12th. The Moon is just 19 hours and 30 minutes before reaching Full during the event. Both are located 167 degrees east of the Sun at the time of the event. The central time of conjunction is 4:37 Universal Time (UT). The event occurs during the daylight hours over Hawaii at dusk during Moonrise, and under darkness for Mexico, most of Canada and the contiguous United States. The event also includes the United Kingdom and southwestern Europe at Moonset near early dawn. This is the final occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon for 2016; The Moon will next occult Aldebaran on January 9th, 2017. This is occultation 26 in the current series of 49, running from January 29th, 2015 to September 3rd, 2018.

Moon Gibraltar
The view from Gibraltar just prior to this week’s occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon. Credit: Stellarium.

Four 1st magnitude stars are along the Moon’s path in the current epoch: Regulus, Aldebaran, Antares and Spica. 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). The Moon also occults Regulus 220 times this century, and occultations of Spica and Antares resume on May 2024 and July 2023, respectively.

And yes, this Supermoon 3 of 3 for 2016, though actual perigee occurs at 23:28 UT tonight, 39 minutes past our own ’24 hour from Full’ rule. The Moon reaches Full on Wednesday, December 14th at just past midnight at 00:07 UT. This is also the closest Full Moon to the December 21st winter solstice next week, and the Full Moon will ride high in the sky this week for northern hemisphere observers on long winter nights.

Keep an eye out for Geminid meteors tonight as well… sure, 2016 may be an off year for this usually spectacular shower, but a few brighter fireballs may still punch through the lunar light pollution.

Clouded out? Be sure to catch the Supermoon action tomorrow night live online starting at 16:00 UT, courtesy of Gianluca Masi and the Virtual Telescope Project.

And there’s more. This coming weekend marks the start of an upcoming new cycle of occultations of Regulus by the Moon. These run right through 2018, as the Moon visits the bright star Regulus five days after crossing the Hyades and occulting Aldebaran for every lunation pass in 2017.

Here’s the specifics for Sunday’s event:

Moon Regulus
The footprint for Sunday’s occultation of Regulus by the Moon. You can find specific ingress and egress times for major cities near you on the IOTA event page. Credit: Occult 4.2.

The 73% illuminated waning gibbous Moon occults the +1.4 magnitude star Regulus on Sunday, December 18th. The Moon is just four days past Full during the event. Both are located 117 degrees west of the Sun at the time of the event. The central time of conjunction is 18:38 Universal Time (UT). The event occurs during the daylight hours over Tasmania, and under darkness for the southwestern tip of Australia, including Perth. The Moon will next occult Regulus on January 15th, 2017. This is the first occultation in a new series of nineteen, running from this weekend to April 24th, 2018.

moon regulus
The view of Sunday’s event from Perth, Australia. Credit: Stellarium.

It’s worth noting that the graze line for Sunday’s occultation of Regulus by the Moon runs just north of the Australian city of Perth and the Perth Observatory… let us know if anyone ‘Down Under’ witnesses the first occultation of Regulus in the new cycle.

Can you spy Regulus’ white dwarf companion? Located 77 light years distant, the Regulus system has at least four components: a B/C pair shining at a combined magnitude of +8, with an apparent separation of 3”, (5,000 AU physical distance in a ~600 year orbit) and an unseen white dwarf companion in a tight 40 day orbit. We know that said white dwarf companion exists from spectroscopic analysis… and it would shine at an easy magnitude +13, were it not near dazzling Regulus shining over 10,000 times brighter. Could this elusive companion turn up just moments before the reappearance of Regulus from behind the Moon? Remember, the dark limb of the Moon leads the way during waxing phases, then trails as the Moon wanes. These and other amazing facts are included in our forthcoming free guide to 101 Astronomical Events to watch out for in 2017.

Regulus occultations
Every occultation of Regulus for the upcoming cycle. Credit: Occult 4.2.

Follow that Moon, and don’t miss these fine astro-events coming to sky above you this week!

Our Guide to the 2016 Geminid Meteors: Watching a Good Shower on a Bad Year

2015 Geminids

One of the best yearly meteor showers contends with the nearly Full Moon this year, but don’t despair; you may yet catch the Geminids.

The Geminid meteor shower peaks next week on the evening of Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, December 13th/14th. The Geminids are always worth keeping an eye on in early through mid-December. As an added bonus, the radiant also clears the northeastern horizon in the late evening as seen from mid-northern latitudes. The Geminids are therefore also exceptional among meteor showers for displaying early evening activity.

Stellarium
The Geminid radiant, looking east around 11 PM local on the evening of December 13th. Note the nearby Moon in the same constellation. Image credit: Stellarium.

First, though, here is the low down of the specifics for the 2016 Geminids: the Geminid meteors are expected to peak on December 13th/14th at midnight Universal Time (UT), favoring Western Europe. The shower is active for a two week period from December 4th to December 17th and can vary with a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 50 to 80 meteors per hour, to short outbursts briefly topping 200 per hour. In 2016, the Geminids are expected to produce a maximum ideal ZHR of 120 meteors per hour. The radiant of the Geminids is located at right ascension 7 hours 48 minutes, declination 32 degrees north at the time of the peak, in the constellation of Gemini.

The Moon is a 98% illuminated waning gibbous just 20 degrees from the radiant at the peak of the Geminids, making 2016 an unfavorable year for this shower. In previous years, the Geminids produced short outbursts topping 200 per hour, as last occurred in 2014.

The Geminid meteors strike the Earth at a relatively slow velocity of 35 kilometers per second, and produce many fireballs with an r vaule of 2.6. The source of the Geminid meteors is actually an asteroid: 3200 Phaethon

Orbitron
The orientation of the radiant versus the Sun, Moon and Earth’s shadow just past midnight Universal Time on the evening of December 13th/14th. (Created using Orbitron).

A moderate shower in the late 20th century, the Geminids have increased in intensity during the opening decade and a half of the 21st century, surpassing the Perseids for the title of the top annual meteor shower.

Image credit: NASA JPL.
The orbit of 3200 Phaethon. Image credit: NASA JPL.

The Geminid shower seems to have breached the background sporadic rate around the mid-19th century. Astronomers A.C. Twining and R.P. Greg observing from either side of the pond in the United States and the United Kingdom both first independently noted the shower in 1862.

Orbiting the Sun once every 524 days, 3200 Phaethon wasn’t identified as the source of the Geminids until 1983. The asteroid is still a bit of a mystery; reaching perihelion just 0.14 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, (interior to Mercury’s orbit) 3200 Phaethon is routinely baked by the Sun. Is it an inactive comet nucleus? Or a ‘rock comet’ in a transitional state?

Observing meteors is as simple as setting out in a lawn chair, laying back and watching with nothing more technical than a good ole’ Mk-1 pair of human eyeballs. Our advice for 2016 is to start watching early, like say this weekend, before the Moon reaches Full on Wednesday, December 14th. This will enable you to watch for the Geminids after morning moonset under dark skies pre-peak, and before moonrise on evenings post-peak.

Two other minor showers are also active next week: the Coma Bernicids peaking on December 15th, and the Leo Minorids peaking on December 19th. If you can trace a suspect meteor back to the vicinity of the Gemini ‘twin’ stars of Castor and Pollux, then you’ve most likely spied a Geminid and not an impostor.

And speaking of the Moon, next week’s Full Moon is not only known as the Full Cold Moon (For obvious reasons) from Algonquin native American lore, but is also the closest Full Moon to the December 21st, northward solstice. This means that next week’s Full Moon rides highest in the sky for 2016, passing straight overhead for locales sited along latitude 17 degrees north, including Guatemala City and Mumbai, India.

A 2015 Geminid over Sariska Palace in Rajastan, Pakistan (ck). Image credit and copyright: Abhinav Singhai.
A 2015 Geminid over Sariska Palace in Rajastan, India. Image credit and copyright: Abhinav Singhai.

Photographing the Geminids is also as simple as setting a camera on a tripod and taking wide-field exposures of the sky. We like to use an intervalometer to take automated sequences about 30 seconds to 3 minutes in length. Said Full Moon will most likely necessitate shorter exposures in 2016. Keep a fresh set of backup batteries handy in a warm pocket, as the cold December night will drain camera batteries in a pinch.

Looking to contribute some meaningful scientific observations? Report those meteor counts to the International Meteor Organization.

Our humble meteor imaging rig. Credit: Dave Dickinson.
Our humble meteor imaging rig. Credit: Dave Dickinson.

And although the Geminids might be a bust in 2016, another moderate shower, the Ursids has much better prospects right around the solstice… more on that next week!