An occultation occurs when one foreground celestial object completely obscures another. Technically, a total solar eclipse is an occultation of the Sun by the Moon, although it’s never referred to as such. The term finds modern usage mainly for the blocking of stars and planets by the Moon. Very occasionally, an asteroid or planet can occult a distant star as well.
And yes, the modern astronomical term “occultation” traces its hoary roots back to the days when astronomy was intertwined with the pseudoscience of astrology. To this day, the term still makes some folks wonder if astronomers are secretly casting horoscopes. Trust us, you’re still on a solid astronomical footing to use the term “occultation.”
Unfortunately, the January 25thoccultation of Saturn by the Moon will only grace part of Antarctica, southern Argentina and Chile, and the Falkland Islands post-sunrise. The rest of us still will see a very photogenic pass of Saturn near the waning crescent Moon on the morning of Saturday, January 25th. The Moon will pass just about a degree — two times its apparent width — south of Saturn for northern hemisphere observers.
Both the Moon and Saturn will reside in the astronomical constellation of Libra this weekend during closest passage. The pair will rise around 2 AM local. After their brief tryst, the Moon will head towards New on January 30th while Saturn will continue to rise successively earlier as its heads towards opposition and the start of evening Saturn observing season on May 10th, 2014.
January 2014 is also notable for having two New Moons, an occurrence informally known as a Black Moon. This occurs again this year in March, and February 2014 is devoid of a New Moon. February is the only month that can be “missing a Moon phase” as it’s the only one shorter the synodic period of 29.5 days, in which the Moon returns to like phase.
In the telescope, Saturn will present a +0.8 magnitude disk 16” across (38” with rings from tip-to-tip). Saturn’s rings are tipped open to our line of sight by about 22 degrees in 2014, and are widening towards a maximum of 27 degrees in 2016 through 2017. If you have an equatorial telescope with tracking capability, it may be possible this weekend to follow Saturn up into the daytime sky. Though Saturn isn’t quite bright enough to see in the daytime unaided, it might just be possible to spy using binoculars on the 25th using the nearby crescent Moon as a guide. Saturn is a tough daytime target to be sure, but it’s not impossible to acquire with a little skill and patience.
The current cycle of occultations of Saturn began on December 1st, 2013 and ends on November 22nd, 2014. The cycle will move progressively northward through the year.
The Moon and Saturn put on a repeat performance over almost the same exact location (this time in darkness) on April 17th, 2014, and the best event in the cycle for North America will be the August 31st daytime occultation of Saturn by the waxing crescent Moon.
Now for the wow factor of what you’re seeing. On Saturday morning, the Moon is just over 371,000 kilometres distant, or a little over a light second away. Saturn is over four thousand times more remote at just over 10.1 astronomical units (AUs) distant, which works out to 1.5 billion kilometres, or over 83 light minutes away. And although the Moon is over a 112 times larger in apparent diameter than Saturn as seen from the Earth, the globe of Saturn is actually over 34 times bigger.
And though we’ve been to the Moon lots since the dawn of the Space Age, only two spacecraft (Voyagers 1 and 2) have made brief flybys of the ringed world, and only one – Cassini – has orbited it. Note that China’s Chang’e-3 lander and rover are about to experience their second sunset this weekend as well from the lunar surface since landing on the Moon last month.
And although lots of planets get occulted by the Moon in 2014, no stars brighter than +1st magnitude lie in its path. In fact, the next cycle of bright star occultations by the Moon doesn’t resume until the Moon meets Aldebaran in January 29th, 2015.
There are, however, over a 100 lesser events involving the Moon occulting naked eye stars worldwide in 2014. Two such events occur this week as well, when the 48% illuminated Moon occults the +4.5th magnitude star Lambda Virginis for west-central South America on the morning of January 24th, and the occultation of the +2.8th magnitude star Alpha Librae (Zubenelgenubi) for central Asia on January 25th.
Don’t miss these celestial events, and be sure to send those pics in to Universe Today… there’s something for everyone happening in the sky this week worldwide!
Three visual athletes based in Arizona took up the challenge on Wednesday evening, with amazing results. Mike Weasner, Rob Sparks and Jim Cadien managed to spot the razor thin crescent Moon just 13 hours and 48 minutes after it passed New phase earlier on January 1st. The sighting was made using binoculars, and they even managed to image the wisp of a crescent hanging against the desert sky.
This is a difficult feat, even under the best of conditions. Weasner and Sparks observed from Mike’s Cassiopeia observatory based just outside of Oracle, Arizona.
“At 1800 Mountain Standard Time (MST), Rob reported that he had located the young Moon using his 8×42 binoculars. At 18:02 MST, I picked it up in the 12×70 binoculars. With the New Moon occurring at 11:14 Universal Time (UT), my observation occurred with the Moon only 13 hours and 48 minutes old. A new record for me (and Rob and Jim as well). Our DSLRs were clicking away!”
We can personally attest to just how hard it is to pick out the uber-thin crescent Moon against the twilight sky. Low contrast is your enemy, making it tough to spot and even tougher to photograph. Add to that a changing twilight sky that alters hue from moment to moment.
Though this isn’t a world record, its close to within about two hours. The youngest confirmed Moon spotting using binoculars stands at 11 hours and 40 minutes accomplished by Mohsen G. Mirsaeed in Iran back in September 7th, 2002, and the youngest Moon sighted with the unaided eye goes to Steven James O’Meara in May 1990, who spotted a 15 hour 32 minute old crescent.
And of course, you can see the Moon at the moment of New during a a solar eclipse. Unfortunately, no total solar eclipses occur in 2014, just an usual non-central annular eclipse brushing Australia and Antarctica on April 29th and a deep 81% partial eclipse crossing North America on October 23rd.
Weasner also noted that a bright Venus aided them in their quest. It’s strange to think that Venus, though visually tiny, is actually intrinsically brighter than the limb of the Moon, owing to its higher albedo. In fact, some great pictures have also been pouring in to Universe Today of Venus as it heads towards inferior conjunction this month on January 11th. And don’t forget, that quoted magnitude of the lunar crescent (about magnitude -3.4) was also scattered along the lunar disk which was only 0.4% illuminated, and subject to atmospheric extinction to boot!
And yes, it is possible to catch the Moon photographically during a non-eclipse at the moment of New phase. The Moon can wander up to 5 degrees – about ten times its average apparent diameter as seen from the Earth – above or below the ecliptic and appear a corresponding distance from the limb of the Sun. Unlike many moons in the solar system, Earth’s moon has a fixed inclination to our orbit (as traced out by the ecliptic,) not our rotational axis. Thierry Legault accomplished this challenging photographic feat last year. Of course, this should only be attempted by seasoned astrophotographers, as aiming a camera near the Sun is not advised.
Why attempt to spot the razor thin New Moon? What’s the benefit? Well, several lunar based dating systems, such as the Islamic calendar, rely on the spotting of the new crescent Moon to mark the beginning of a new month. Being strictly lunar-based, the Islamic calendar moves an average of -11 days out of sync each year versus the modern day Gregorian calendar. On some years, there can even be a bit of ambiguity as to exactly when key months such as Ramadan will begin based on when the Moon is first sighted.
Also, such a feat demonstrates what the human eye is capable of when pushed to its physiological limits. In fact, French astrophysicist Andre Danjon theorized that the lunar crescent is formed at about 5 degrees elongation from the Sun, a point beyond which a lunar crescent can be sighted — usually quoted at about 7 degrees elongation from the Sun — and has become known as the Danjon Limit. Danjon also gave his namesake to the characterization of total lunar eclipses by color and hue, known as the Danjon Number. Accounting for the motion of the Moon, this places the theoretical limit that the forming crescent can be sighted with optical assistance at just over 11 hours.
And you don’t have to wait until the Moon passes New… a similar attempt can be made in the dawn skies as the waning crescent Moon slides towards the Sun at the end of each lunation.
But perhaps the true reward is simply catching a glimpse of the ethereal for yourself, a delicate and airy Moon clinging briefly on the horizon. Kudos to Mike and Rob on a great catch!
Follow the further adventures of Mike Weasner and Rob Sparks on Twitter as @mweasner & @halfastro.
As 2013 draws to a close, we once again cast our thoughts to all things astronomical for the coming year. For the past five years, I’ve been constructing this list of all things astronomical for the coming year, lovingly distilling the events transpiring worldwide down to a 101 “best events of the year”. This is the first year this list has been featured on Universe Today, so we’ll lay out our ground rules and reasoning a bit as to selection criteria.
Events selected run the gamut from conjunctions and eclipses that are visible worldwide or over a good swath of the planet, to asteroid occultations of stars that are only visible along a thin path along the surface of the Earth. Geocentric conjunction times for occultations are quoted. Generally, only conjunctions involving bright stars, planets & the Moon are noted. The intent of this list is to bridge the gap between the often meager “10 Best Astronomy Events of 2014” listicles that make their rounds this time of year and the more tedious laundry lists of Moon phases and wide conjunctions.
As always, we look at the coming year with an eye out for the astronomically curious and the bizarre. Times are quoted in Universal Time (UT) using a 24-hour clock, which is identical to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and Zulu for those in the military.
Some caveats as to how selections were made:
-To make the cut, asteroid occultations must have a rank of 99 or greater, and occult a star brighter than +8th magnitude.
– We only selected major annual meteor showers with a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) projected to be 20 or greater.
– Only lunar occultations of planets and bright stars are listed.
– Solstice seasons where the International Space Station reaches full illumination are approximate; the ISS gets boosted periodically, and therefore it’s impossible to project its precise orbit months in advance.
– Comets come and go. The comets included on this list are some of the “best bets” that are forcasted to reach binocular visibility for 2014. A big bright one could come up and steal the show at any time!
This list was meant to “whet the appetite” for what’s coming to skies worldwide in 2014 with a succinct rapid fire listing by month. Where an online resource exists that expands on the event, we linked to ‘em. A full resource list, both paper and cyber, is given at the end of the post. Print these events, post it on your refrigerator and/or observatory wall, and expect us to feature many these fine events on Universe Today in the coming year!
Some notes on 2014:
2014 sees Mars reach opposition in early April, which is sure to be a highlight as we head towards an exceptionally close opposition in 2018.
The month of February is also missing a New Moon, which last occurred in 1995 and won’t happen again until 2033. February is the only calendar month which can be missing the same moon phase twice!
We’re also coming off a profoundly weak solar maximum in 2014, though as always, the Sun may have some surprises in store for solar observers and aurora watchers worldwide.
The motion of the Moon in 2014 is headed towards a “shallow” year in 2015 relative to the ecliptic; it will then begin to slowly open back up and ride high around 2025.
2014 also contains the minimum number of eclipses that can occur in one year, 2 solar and 2 lunar. And while there are no total solar eclipses in 2014, there are two fine total lunar eclipses, both visible from North America.
And finally, thanks to all of those too numerous to name who provided discussions/diatribes/input via Twitter/G+/message boards/etc to make this listing possible… let another exciting year of astronomy begin!