Catch ‘The Great American Occultation’ of Aldebaran Saturday Night

The Moon nearing Aldebaran on February 5th, 2017. Image credit and copyright: Chris Lyons.
The Moon nearing Aldebaran on February 5th, 2017. Image credit and copyright: Chris Lyons.

Ever watch the Moon cover up a star? There’s a great chance to see just such an event this coming weekend, when the waxing gibbous Moon occults (passes in front of)  the bright star Aldebaran for much of North America on Saturday night, March 4th.

Shining at magnitude +0.85, Aldebaran is the brightest star that lies along the Moon’s path in the current epoch, and is one of four +1st magnitude stars that the Moon can occult. The other three are Regulus, Antares and Spica. This is the 29th in a series of 49 occultations of Aldebaran worldwide spanning from January 29th, 2015 to September 3rd, 2018, meaning Aldebaran hides behind the Moon once every lunation as it crosses through the constellation Taurus and the Hyades open star cluster in 2017. Like eclipses belonging to the same saros cycle, successive occultations of bright stars shift westward by about 120 degrees westward longitude and slowly drift to the north. Europe saw last month’s occultation of Aldebaran, and Asia is up next month on April 1st.

The occultation footprint for Saturday night’s event. Credit: Occult 4.2 software.

All of the contiguous ‘lower 48 states’ except northern New England see Saturday night’s occultation, and under dark skies, to boot. It’s a close miss for Canada. Mexico, central America and the Caribbean will also witness the event under dark skies. Hawaii will see the event under daytime skies. We can attest that this is indeed possible using binocs or a telescope, as we caught Aldebaran near the daytime Moon during last month’s event.

Occultations give us a chance to see a split second magic act, in a Universe that often unfolds over eons and epochs. The motion you’re seeing is mostly that of the Moon, and to a lesser extent, that of the Earth as the star abruptly ‘winks out’.

Observers in northern tier states might witness an additional spectacle, as Aldebaran grazes the northern limb of the Moon. This can make for an unforgettable sight, as the star successively winks in at out from behind lunar peaks and valleys. The graze line for Saturday night follows the U.S./Canadian border from Washington state, Idaho and Montana, then transects North Dakota, Minnesota just below Duluth and northern Wisconsin, Michigan and New York and Connecticut. Brad Timerson over at the international Occultation Timing Association has a good page set up for the circumstances for the grazing event, and the IOTA has a page detailing ingress (start) and egress times for the event for specific cities.

The northern limit grazeline for Saturday night’s occultation. Credit: USAF/Wikimedia Commons/Dave Dickinson

You’ll be able to see the occultation of Aldebaran with the unaided eye, no telescope over binocular needed, though it will be fun to follow along with optics as well. The ingress along the leading dark limb of the Moon is always more dramatic, while reemergence on the bright limb is a more subtle affair.

The path of the occultation for select cities. Credit: Stellarium.

A simple video aimed afocally through a telescope eyepiece can easily capture the event. We like to run WWV radio on AM shortwave in the background while video recording so as to get a good time hack of the event on audio. Finally, set up early, watch those battery levels in the frigid March night, and be sure to balance out your exposure times to capture both Aldebaran and the dazzling limb of the Moon.

Can you see it? The Moon paired with Aldebaran on February 5th. Image credit and copyright: Lucca Ruggiero.

Anyone Live-casting the event? It’ll be a tough one low to the horizon here in central Florida, but a livestream would certainly be possible for folks westward with Aldebaran and the Moon high in the sky. Let us know of any planned webcasts, and we’ll promote accordingly.

The Moon also occults several other bright stars this week, leading up to an occultation of Regulus on March 10th favoring the southern Atlantic. Read all about occultations, eclipses, comets and more in our free e-book, 101 Astronomical Events for 2017 from Universe Today.

Don’t miss Saturday night’s stunning occultation, and let us know of your tales of astronomical tribulation and triumph.

-Send those astro-images in to Universe Today’s Flickr forum, and you might just see ’em featured here in a future article.

Photobomb: The Moon Occults Aldebaran Wednesday

An occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon: before and after. Image credit and copyright: Eliot Herman.

How about that Hunter’s Supermoon this past weekend, huh? Follow that Moon, as it’s meeting up with the Hyades again this week, and occults (passes in front of) Aldebaran Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.

Here’s the lowdown on the event:

The 86% illuminated waning gibbous Moon occults the +0.9 magnitude star Aldebaran across North America, the Northern Atlantic and Europe. The Moon is three days past Full during the event. Both are located 136 degrees west of the Sun at the time of the event. The central time of conjunction is ~6:40 Universal Time (UT). The event occurs during the daylight hours over western Europe and northwestern Africa and under darkness for southeastern North America, including the eastern United States and Mexico. The Moon will next occult Aldebaran on November 15th, 2016. This is occultation 24 in the current series of 49 running from January 29th, 2015 to September 3rd 2018.

The occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon as seen from London on December 23rd, 2015. Image credit and copyright: Roger Hutchinson.
The occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon as seen from London on December 23rd, 2015. Image credit and copyright: Roger Hutchinson.

The graze line is of particular interest during this event. We’re talking about the very edge of the footprint of the Moon’s ‘shadow’ cast by Aldebaran, running through Canada and bisecting the United States. Observers based along this line could see a spectacular ‘grazing occultation’ of Aldebaran by the Moon. We usually think of the limb of the Moon as a smooth curve, but it’s actually jagged. What you may see is Aldebaran wink in and out as light shines down those lunar valleys and is alternately blocked out behind peaks and crater rims. This is an unforgettable sight, and makes for great video. A record of a grazing occultation by multiple observers can also be used to create a profile of the lunar limb. That light from Aldebaran took 65 years to get here, only to be blocked by our Moon at the very last second.

The occultation footpring for tonight's event. The solid lines denote where the occultation occurs under dark night time skies, while the blue lines denote twilight and the broken lines describe where the event occurs in the daytime. Image credit: Occult 4.2.
The occultation footprint for tonight’s event. The solid lines denote where the occultation occurs under dark nighttime skies, while the blue lines denote twilight, and the broken lines describe where the event occurs in the daytime. Image credit: Occult 4.2.

And observers (myself one of them) based in Europe shouldn’t count themselves out. Like brighter planets, you can spy a +1 magnitude star such as Aldebaran near the daytime Moon using binoculars or a telescope… if, of course, you have a high contrast deep blue sky and know exactly where to look for it. The International Occultation Timing Association has a page for the event with a complete list of ingress and egress times for key cities on three continents in the path. We’ll be watching the Wednesday event – clear skies willing — from our present basecamp in the Andalusian foothills just outside of Jimena de la Frontera, Spain.

The northern graze line for tonight's occultation. Note that several major cities lie along the crucial path. Image credit: Dave Dickinson.
The northern graze line for tonight’s occultation. Note that several major cities lie along the crucial path. Image credit: Dave Dickinson.

During our current epoch, the Moon can only occult four +1st magnitude stars: Regulus, Spica, Antares and Aldebaran. The slow motion movement of the Moon, the Earth and the background stars make this prestigious A-list change over time: until about two millennia ago, you could also count the bright star Pollux in Gemini among them.

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).

Timing an occultation is fun and as easy as shooting video of the Moon through a telescope at the appointed time of ingress or egress. Practice on framing the dazzling Moon first well in advance — probably the toughest part is getting the exposure of the bright limb stopped down enough to still see and image the star. We find that shooting anywhere from 1/100th to 1/500th frame rate for a gibbous Moon is about right. Don’t be afraid to crank up the magnification a bit, so you can place the bulk of the Moon out of view. Also, catching occultations of stars and planets during waning Moon phases are more challenging than waxing, as the star will ingress behind the bright leading limb and later reappear behind the dark trailing limb (waxing is vice versa).

Observing: Running an audible time hack in the background such as WWV radio out of Fort Collins, Colorado can provide a precise record of the occultation.

But wait, there’s more. When the Moon occults Aldebaran, its also crossing the background V-shaped open star cluster known as the Hyades. Worldwide the waning gibbous Moon also occults Gamma, 51, and Theta^1 and Theta^2, SAO 93975, and 119 Tauri. Chances are, there’s an occultation for YOU to catch this week, regardless of your location.

Want more? Well, the Moon continues to occult Aldebaran every lunation through 2017, and will also start a cycle of passes in front of Regulus on December 18th. In fact, the next occultation of Aldebaran on November 15th favors central Asia, and the event two lunations from now on December 13th brings the path back around the North America.

A great close out for 2016, for sure. Don’t miss this week’s occultation!

Lights Out: A Fine Occultation of Aldebaran Spans the Atlantic

The waxing gibbous Moon closes in on Aldebaran (lower left). Image credit and copyright: Sarah & Simon Fisher

They braved the cold, cursed the clouds, wrestled with frozen telescope focusers and more, as dedicated astros worked to catch the first occultation of the bright star Aldebaran for 2016 by the waxing gibbous Moon.

The event went down last night into the wee hours of the morning, and was visible across North America into western Europe and the United Kingdom. Continue reading “Lights Out: A Fine Occultation of Aldebaran Spans the Atlantic”