Observing Challenge: The Moon Brushes Past Venus and Covers Mercury This Week


The summer astronomical action heats up this week, as the waning crescent Moon joins the inner planets at dawn. This week’s action comes hot on the tails of the northward solstice which occurred this past weekend, which fell on June 21st in 2014, marking the start of astronomical summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern. This also means that the ecliptic angle at dawn for mid-northern latitude observers will run southward from the northeast early in the morning sky. And although the longest day was June 21st, the earliest sunrise from 40 degrees north latitude was June 14th and the latest sunset occurs on June 27th. We’re slowly taking back the night!

The dawn patrol action begins tomorrow, as the waning crescent Moon slides by Venus low in the dawn sky Tuesday morning. Geocentric (Earth-centered) conjunction occurs on June 24th at around 13:00 Universal Time/9:00 AM EDT, as the 8% illuminated Moon sits 1.3 degrees — just shy of three Full Moon diameters — from -3.8 magnitude Venus. Also note that the open cluster the Pleiades (Messier 45) sits nearby. Well, nearby as seen from our Earthbound vantage point… the Moon is just over one light second away, Venus is 11 light minutes away, and the Pleiades are about 400 light years distant.

Jun 24 5AM Starry Night
Looking east the morning of Tuesday, June 24th at 5:00 AM EDT from latitude 30 degrees north. Created using Starry Night Education software.

And speaking of the Pleiades, Venus will once again meet the cluster in 2020 in the dusk sky, just like it did in 2012. This is the result of an eight year cycle, where apparitions of Venus roughly repeat. Unfortunately we won’t, however, get another transit of Venus across the face of the Sun until 2117!

Can you follow the crescent Moon up in to the daytime sky? Tuesday is also a great time to hunt for Venus in the daytime sky, using the nearby crescent Moon as a guide. Both sit about 32 degrees from the Sun on June 24th. Just make sure you physically block the dazzling Sun behind a building or hill in your quest.

From there, the waning Moon continues to thin on successive mornings as it heads towards New phase on Friday, June 27th at 8:09 UT/4:09 AM EDT and the start of lunation 1132. You might be able to spy the uber-thin Moon about 20-24 hours from to New on the morning prior. The Moon will also occult (pass in front of) Mercury Thursday morning, as the planet just begins its dawn apparition and emerges from the glare of the Sun.

The position of the Moon and Mercury post-sunrise on the morning of June 26th. Credit: Stellarium.

Unfortunately, catching the event will be a challenge. Mercury is almost always occulted by the Moon in the daytime due to its close proximity to the Sun. The footprint of the occultation runs from the Middle East across North Africa to the southeastern U.S. and northern South America, but only a thin sliver of land from northern Alabama to Venezuela will see the occultation begin just before sunrise… for the remainder of the U.S. SE, the occultation will be underway at sunrise and Mercury will emerge from behind the dark limb of the Moon in daylight.

The ground track of the June 26th occultation. Credit: Occult 4.0.

Mercury and the Moon sit 10 degrees from the Sun during the event. Stargazer and veteran daytime planet hunter Shahrin Ahmad based in Malaysia notes that while it is possible to catch Mercury at 10 degrees from the Sun in the daytime using proper precautions, it’ll shine at magnitude +3.5, almost a full 5 magnitudes (100 times) fainter than its maximum possible brightness of -1.5. The only other occultation of Mercury by the Moon in 2014 favors Australia and New Zealand on October 22nd.

This current morning apparition of Mercury this July is equally favorable for the southern hemisphere, and the planet reaches 20.9 degrees elongation west of the Sun on July 12th.

You can see Mercury crossing the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera from left to right recently, along with comet C/2014 E2 Jacques as a small moving dot down at about the 7 o’clock position.

Mercury (arrowed) and comet E2 Jacques (in the box) as seen from SOHO. (Click  here for animation)

And keep an eye on the morning action this summer, as Jupiter joins the morning roundup in August for a fine pairing with Venus on August 18th.

The Moon will then reemerge in the dusk evening sky this weekend and may just be visible as a 40-44 hour old crescent on Saturday night June 28th. The appearance of the returning Moon this month also marks the start of the month of Ramadan on the Islamic calendar, a month of fasting. The Muslim calendar is strictly based on the lunar cycle, and thus loses about 11 days per year compared to the Gregorian calendar, which strives to keep the tropical and sidereal solar years in sync. On years when the sighting of the crescent Moon is right on the edge of theoretical observability, there can actually be some debate as to the exact evening on which Ramadan will begin.

Don’t miss the wanderings of our nearest natural neighbor across the dawn and dusk sky this week!

The September Equinox: ‘Tis the Season to Spy the Zodiacal Light

The zodiacal light in the Nevada dawn. The plane of the ecliptic can be traced by Jupiter in Gemini & Mars in the Beehive cluster just below center. (Credit: Cory Schmitz, used with permission).

This week leading up to the September equinox offers you a fine chance to catch an elusive phenomenon in the pre-dawn sky.

We’re talking about the zodiacal light, the ghostly pyramid-shaped luminescence that heralds the approach of dawn. Zodiacal light can also be seen in the post-dusk sky, extending from the western horizon along the ecliptic.

September is a great time for northern hemisphere observers to try and sight this glow in the early dawn. This is because the ecliptic is currently at a high and favorable angle, pitching the zodiacal band out of the atmospheric murk low to the horizon. For southern hemisphere observers, September provides the best time to hunt for the zodiacal light after dusk. In March, the situation is reversed, with dusk being the best for northern hemisphere observers and dawn providing the best opportunity to catch this elusive phenomenon for southern observers.

The clash of the zodiacal light and the plane of our galaxy. (Credit: Cory Schmitz, used with permission).
The clash of the zodiacal light and the plane of our galaxy. (Credit: Cory Schmitz, used with permission).

Cory Schmitz’s recent outstanding photos taken from the Nevada desert brought to mind just how ephemeral a glimpse of the zodiacal light can be. The glow was a frequent sight for us from dark sky sites just outside of Tucson, Arizona—but a rarity now that we reside on the light-polluted east coast of the U.S.

In order to see the zodiacal light, you’ll need to start watching before astronomical twilight—the start of which is defined as when the rising Sun reaches 18 degrees below the local horizon—and observe from as dark a site as possible under a moonless sky.

The Bortle dark sky scale lists the zodiacal light as glimpse-able under Class 4 suburban-to-rural transition skies. Under a Class 3 rural sky, the zodiacal light may extend up to 60 degrees above the horizon, and under truly dark—and these days, almost mythical—Class 1 and 2 skies, the true nature of the zodiacal band extending across the ecliptic can become apparent.  The appearance and extent of the zodiacal light makes a great gauge of the sky conditions at that favorite secret dark sky site.

The source of the zodiacal light is tiny dust particles about 10 to 300 micrometres in size scattered across the plane of the solar system. The source of the material has long been debated, with the usual suspects cited as micrometeoroid collisions and cometary dust. A 2010 paper by Peter Jenniskens and David Nesvorny in the Astrophysical Journal cites the fragmentation of Jupiter-class comets. Their model satisfactorily explains the source of about 85% of the material. Dust in the zodiacal cloud must be periodically replenished, as the material is slowly spiraling inward via what is known as the Poynting-Robertson effect. None other than Brian May of the rock group Queen wrote his PhD thesis on Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud.

But even if you can’t see the zodiacal light, you still just might be able to catch it. Photographing the zodiacal light is similar to catching the band of the Milky Way. In fact, you can see the two crossing paths in Cory’s images, as the bright winter lanes of the Orion Spur are visible piercing the constellation of the same name. Cory used a 14mm lens at f/3.2 for the darker image with a 20 second exposure at ISO 6400 and a 24mm lens at f/2.8 with a 15 second exposure at ISO 3200 for the brighter shot.

The orientation of the ecliptic & the zodiacal band as seen from latitude 30 deg north in September, about 1 hour before sunrise. (Created by the author in Stellarium).
The orientation of the ecliptic & the zodiacal band as seen from latitude 30 deg north in September, about 1 hour before sunrise. (Created by the author in Stellarium).

Under a truly dark site, the zodiacal light can compete with the Milky Way in brightness. The early Arab astronomers referred to it as the false dawn. In recent times, we’ve heard tales of urbanites mistaking the Milky Way for the glow of a fire on the horizon during blackouts, and we wouldn’t be surprised if the zodiacal light could evoke the same. We’ve often heard our friends who’ve deployed to Afghanistan remark how truly dark the skies are there, as military bases must often operate with night vision goggles in total darkness to avoid drawing sniper fire.

Another even tougher but related phenomenon to spot is known as the gegenschein. This counter glow sits at the anti-sunward point where said particles are approaching 100% illumination. This time of year, this point lies off in the constellation Pisces, well away from the star-cluttered galactic plane. OK, we’ve never seen it, either. A quick search of the web reveals more blurry pics of guys in ape suits purporting to be Bigfoot than good pictures of the gegenschein. Spotting this elusive glow is the hallmark of truly dark skies. The anti-sunward point and the gegenschein rides highest near local midnight.

And speaking of which, the September equinox occurs this weekend on the 22nd at 4:44 PM EDT/20:44 Universal Time. This marks the beginning of Fall for the northern hemisphere and the start of summer for the southern.

The Full Harvest Moon also occurs later this week, being the closest Full Moon to the equinox occurring on September 19th at 7:13AM EDT/11:13 UT. Said Moon will rise only ~30 minutes apart on successive evenings for mid-northern latitude observers, owing to the shallow angle of the ecliptic. Unfortunately, the Moon will then move into the morning sky, drowning out those attempts to spy the zodiacal light until late September.

Be sure to get out there on these coming mornings and check out the zodiacal light, and send in those pics in to Universe Today!