This Weekend: The Moon Photobombs ‘Planet-palooza’ at Dawn

September planets
The planetary lineup at dawn (minus the Moon) from September 12th. Image credit and copyright: Alan Dyer (AmazingSky.com).

Following the Moon and wondering where are the fleeting inner solar system planets are this month?

While Jupiter and Saturn sink into the dusk on the far side of the Sun this month, the real action transpires in the dawn sky in mid-September, with a complex set of early morning conjunctions, groupings and occultations.

First, let’s set the stage for the planetary drama. Mercury just passed greatest elongation 18 degrees west of the Sun on September 12th.

The action warms up with a great pre-show on the morning of Saturday, September 16th, when the closest conjunction of two naked eye planets for 2017 occurs, as Mercury passes just 3′ north of Mars. The conjunction occurs at 16:00 UT, favoring the western Pacific region in the dawn hours. The pair is just 17 degrees from the Sun. As mentioned previously, this is the closest conjunction of two naked eye planets in 2017, so close the two will seem to merge to the naked eye and make a nice split with binoculars. This is also one of the first good chances to spy Mars for this apparition, fresh off of its solar conjunction on July 27th, 2017. Mars is now headed towards a favorable opposition next summer on July 27th, 2018, one that’s very nearly as favorable as the historic grand opposition of 2003.

Mars shines at magnitude +1.8 on Saturday morning with a disk 3.6” across, while Mercury shines at magnitude +0.05 with a 64% illuminated disk 6.4” across. Mars is actually 389 million km (2.6 AU) from the Earth this weekend, while Mercury is 158 million km (1.058 AU) distant.

The view looking east on the morning of September 17th. Stellarium

Follow that planet, as Mars also makes a close (12′) pass near Venus on October 5th. At the eyepiece, Venus will look like it has a large moon, just like the Earth!

Think this pass is close? Stick around until August 10th, 2079 and you can actually see Mercury occult (pass in front of) Mars… our cyborg body should be ready to download our consciousness into by then.

Mark your calendars: Mercury occults Mars in 2079. Stellarium

The waning crescent Moon joins the view on Monday, September 18th, making a spectacular series of passes worldwide as it threads its way through the stellar-planetary lineup. Occultations involving the waning Moon are never as spectacular as those involving the waxing Moon, as the bright limb of the Moon leads the way for ingress instead of the dark edge. The best sight to behold will be the sudden reappearance of the planet of star (egress) from behind the waning crescent Moon’s dark limb.

The Moon on Sept 18th
The sky looking east on the morning of September 18th. Stellarium

First up is an occultation of Venus on September 18th centered on 00:55 UT. Unfortunately, this favors the eastern Indian Ocean at dawn, though viewers in Australia and New Zealand can watch the occultation under post dawn daytime skies. The pair is 22 degrees west of the Sun, and the Moon is two days from New during the event. Shining at magnitude -4, it’s actually pretty easy to pick out Venus near the crescent Moon in the daytime. Observers worldwide should give this a try on the 18th as well… folks are always amazed when I show them Venus in the daytime. The last time the Moon occulted Venus was September 3rd, 2016 and the two won’t cross paths again until February 16th, 2018.

The footprint of the occultation of Venus by the Moon. Occult 4.2

Next up, the Moon occults the +1.4 magnitude star Regulus on the 18th at 4:56 UT. Observers across north-central Africa are best placed to observe this event. This is the 11th occultation of Regulus by the Moon in a series of 19, spanning December 2016 to April 2018.

The occultation of Regulus by the Moon. Occult 4.2

The brightest star in the constellation Leo, Regulus is actually 79 light years distant.

Next up, the dwindling waning crescent Moon meets the Red Planet Mars and occults it for the western Pacific at 19:42 UT. Shining at magnitude +1.8 low in the dawn sky, Mars is currently only 3.6” in size, a far cry from its magnificent apparition next summer when it will appear 24.3” in size… very nearly the largest it can appear from the Earth.

The occultation of Mars by the Moon. Occult 4.2

And finally, the slim 2% illuminated Moon will occult the planet Mercury on September 18th centered on 23:21 UT.

The occultation of Mercury by the Moon. Occult 4.2

Mercury occultations are tough, as the planet never strays very far from the Sun. The only known capture I’ve seen was out of Japan back in 2013:

This week’s occultation favors southeast Asia at dawn, and the pair is only 16 degrees west of the Sun. Mercury is gibbous 74% illuminated and 6” in size during the difficult occultation.

We just miss having a simultaneous “multiple occultation” this week. The Moon moves at the span of its half a degree size about once every hour with respect to the starry background, meaning an occultation must occur about 60 minutes apart for the Moon to cover two planets or a planet and a bright star at the same time, a rare once in a lifetime event indeed. The last time this transpired, the Moon covered Venus and Jupiter simultaneously for observers on Ascension Island on the morning of April 23rd 1998.

When is the next time this will occur? We’re crunching the numbers as we speak… watch this space!

Looking into next week, the Moon reaches New phase on Wednesday, September 20th at 5:31 UT/1:31 AM EDT, marking the start of lunation 1172. Can you spy the razor thin Moon Wednesday evening low to the west? Sighting opportunities improve on Thursday night.

Don’t miss this weekend’s dance of the planets in the early dawn sky, a great reason to rise early.

Read about conjunctions, occultations, tales of astronomy and more in our free guide to the Top 101 Astronomical Events for 2017 from Universe Today.

Observing Alert: Watch the Moon Cross the Hyades This Week

A photogenic grouping greets evening sky watchers this week providing a fine teaser leading up to a spectacular eclipse.

On the evening of Thursday, April 3rd headed into the morning of the 4th, the waxing crescent Moon crosses in front of the Hyades open star cluster.  This is the V-shaped asterism that marks the head on Taurus the Bull, highlighted by the brilliant foreground star Aldebaran as the bull’s “eye”.  Viewers across North America will have a ring-side seat to this “bull-fight” as the 20% illuminated Moon stampedes over several members of the Hyades in its path.

Starry Night
The passage of the Moon through the Hyades over a three hour span on the night of April 3rd (April 4th in Universal Time) comparing the North American locales of Tampa, Florida and Seattle, Washington. (Credit: Starry Night Education Software).

The brightest stars to be occulted are the Delta Tauri trio of stars ranging in magnitudes from +3.8 (Delta Tauri^1) to +4.8(2) and +4.3(3). Such occlusions – known in astronomy as occultations – are fun to watch, and can reveal the existence of close binary companions as they wink out behind the lunar limb. Several dozen occultations of stars brighter than +5th magnitude by the Moon happen each year, and the best events occur when the Moon is waxing and the stars disappear against its dark leading edge. We recently caught one such event last month when the Moon occulted the bright star Lambda Geminorum:

We are currently seeing the Moon cross the Hyades during every lunation until the year 2020, though it’s a particularly favorable time to catch the event in April 2014 as the Moon is a slender crescent. Notice that you can just make out the dark limb of the Moon with the naked eye? What you’re seeing is termed Earthshine, and that’s just what it is: the nighttime side of the Moon being illuminated by sunlight that is reflected off of the Earth. Standing on the Earthward side of the Moon, an observer would see a waning gibbous Earth about two degrees across. Yutu has a great view!

Credit Occult 4.0
The occultation footprint for Delta Tauri^1. Credit: Occult 4.0

The Moon will cross its descending node where its apparent path intersects the ecliptic on April 1st (no joke, we swear) at 2:30 Universal Time or 10:30 PM EDT on March 31st. The next nodal crossing now occurs in just two weeks, and the Earth’s shadow will be there to greet the Moon on the morning of April 15th in the first of four total lunar eclipses that span 2014 and 2015. The month of April also sees the Moon’s orbit at its least eccentric, a time at which perigee – the Moon’s closest point to Earth – is at its most distant and apogee – its farthest point – is at its closest. This currently happens near the equinoxes, through the nodes slowly travel across the ecliptic completing one revolution every 18.6 years. Perigee can vary from 356,400 to 370,400 kilometres, and apogee can span a distance from 404,000 to 406,700 kilometres.

Stellarium
Looking west from the US SE at about 10PM local on the evening of April 3rd. Credit: Stellarium.

We’re also headed towards a “shallow year” in 2015 when the Moon has the least variability in respect to its declination. This trend will then reverse, climaxing with a “Long Nights Moon” riding high in the sky in 2025, which last occurred in 2006. The Moon will inch ever closer to Aldebaran on every successive lunation now, and begins a series of occultations of Aldebaran on January 29th, 2015 through the end of 2018. Occultations of Aldebaran always occur near these shallow years, and will be followed by a cycle of occultations of Regulus starting in 2017. We caught an excellent daytime occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon from North Pole, Alaska during the last cycle in the late 1990s.

Photos by Author
The Moon passing between the Hyades and Pleiades in 2011 with Earthshine highlighted. Photos by author.

Now for the wow factor. Our Moon is 3,474 kilometres across and located just over one light second away. The Hyades star cluster covers about 6 ½ degrees of sky – about 7 times the size of the Full Moon – but is the closest open cluster to the Earth at 153 light years distant and has a core diameter of about 18 light years across. As mentioned previous, Aldebaran isn’t physically associated with the Hyades, but is merely located in the same direction at 65 light years distant.

The Hyades star cluster also provided early 20th astronomers with an excellent study in galactic motion. At an estimated 625 million years in age, the Hyades are slowly getting disbanded and strewn about the Milky Way galaxy in a process known as evaporation. The Hyades are also part of a larger stellar incorporation known as the Taurus Moving Cluster. Moving at an average of about 43 kilometres a second, the members of the Hyades are receding from us towards a divergent point near the bright star Betelgeuse in the shoulder of Orion. 50 million years hence, the Hyades will be invisible to the naked eye as seen from Earth, looking like a non-descript open cluster and providing a much smaller target for the Moon to occult at 20’ across. Astronomer Lewis Boss was the first to plot the motion of the Hyades through space in 1908, and the cluster stands as an essential rung on the cosmic distance ladder, with agreeing measurements independently made by both Hubble and Hipparcos and soon to be refined by Gaia.

Photographing and documenting this week’s passage of our Moon across the Hyades is easy with a DSLR camera: don’t be afraid to vary those ISO and shutter speeds to get the mix of the brilliant crescent Moon, the fainter earthshine, and background stars just right. The more adventurous might want to try actually catching the numerous occultations of bright stars on video. And U.S. and Canadian west coast observers are well placed to catch the Moon cross right though the core of the Hyades… a video animation of the event is not out of the question!

And from there, the Moon heads on to its date with destiny and a fine total lunar eclipse on April 15th which favors North American longitudes. We’ll be back later this week with our complete and comprehensive eclipse guide!

Watch the Moon Meet Venus in the Dawn this Wednesday

Are you ready for some lunar versus planetary occultation action? One of the best events for 2014 occurs early this Wednesday morning on February 26th, when the waning crescent Moon — sometimes referred to as a decrescent Moon — meets up with a brilliant Venus in the dawn sky. This will be a showcase event for the ongoing 2014 dawn apparition of Venus that we wrote about recently.

This is one of 16 occultations of a planet by our Moon for 2014, which will hide every naked eye classical planet except Jupiter and only one of two involving Venus this year.

An occultation occurs when one celestial body passes in front of another, obscuring it from our line of sight. The term is used to refer to planets or asteroids blocking out distant stars or the Moon passing in front of stars or planets.

Wednesday’s event has a central conjunction time of 5:00 Universal. Viewers in northwestern Africa based in Mali and southern Algeria and surrounding nations will see the occultation occur in the dawn sky before sunrise, while viewers eastward across the Horn of Africa, the southern Arabian peninsula, India and southeast Asia will see the occultation occur in the daylight.

January 29th, 2014
A comparison of Venus versus the Moon in the daytime taken by Sharin Ahmad (@shahgazer) from Malaysia during the last lunation on January 29th, 2014.

Observers worldwide, including those based in Australia, Europe and the Americas will see a near miss, but early risers will still be rewarded with a brilliant dawn pairing of the second and third brightest objects in the night sky. This will also be a fine time to attempt to spot Venus in the daytime, using the nearby crescent Moon as a guide. It’s easier than you might think!  In fact, Venus is actually brighter than the Moon per apparent square arc second of surface area, owing to its higher average reflectivity (known as albedo) of 80% versus the Moon’s dusky 14%.

The International Occultation Timing Association also maintains a chart of ingress and egress times for specific locations along the track of the occultation.

Credit: Created using Occult 4.0.11.
The footprint of the Wednesday occultation of Venus by the Moon. Solid lines indicate where the occultation occurs before sunrise, while the dashed area denotes where the occultation occurs after sunrise. Credit: Created using Occult 4.1.0.11.

The Moon occults Venus 21 times in this decade. The last occultation of Venus by the Moon occurred on September 8th, 2013, and the next occurs October 23rd 2014 over the South Pacific in daylight skies very close to the Sun, and is unobservable.

Wednesday’s event also offers a unique opportunity to catch a crescent Venus emerging from behind the dark limb of the Moon. On Wednesday, Venus presents a 34” diameter disk that is 35% illuminated and shining at magnitude -4.3, while the Moon is a 12% illuminated crescent three days from New. Fun fact: February 2014 is missing a New Moon, meaning that both January and March will each contain two!

Apparent path of Venus in relation to the Moon
Apparent path of Venus in relation to the Moon Wednesday morning as seen from a theoretical geocentric (Earth-centered) location. Created using Starry Night Education software.

This also means that a well positioned observer in northwestern Africa would be able to see able to catch the dark limb of Venus creeping out from behind the nighttime side of the Moon against a dark sky. Such favorable occurrences only happen a handful of times per decade, and this week would be a great time to try and briefly spot – or perhaps even video or photograph – a phenomenon know as the ashen light of Venus as the dazzling crescent daytime side of the planet lay obscured by the Moon. Is this effect reported by observers over the years a fanciful illusion, or a real occurrence?

Perhaps, due to the remote location, this chance to spy and record this elusive effect will go unnoticed this time ‘round. The next chance with optimal possibilities to catch a crescent Venus occulted by the Moon against a dark sky occurs next year on October 8th, 2015, favoring the Australian outback. Anyone out there down for an observing expedition to prove or disprove the ashen light of Venus once and for all? Astronomy road trip!

Photo by Author
April 22nd, 2009 conjunction of Venus and the Moon as seen from Hudson, Florida. The Photo by author.

This event also provides optimal circumstances as Venus heads towards greatest elongation west of the Sun on March 22nd and the Moon-Venus pair lay 43 degrees west of the Sun during Wednesday’s event. Compare this to the impossible to observe occultation this October, when the pairing is only one degree east of the Sun! The next occultation of Venus for North America occurs next year on December 7th, 2015 and will be visible in the daytime across the extent of the track except for Alaska and Northwestern Canada.

Vexillographers may also want to take note: this week’s Venus-Moon pairing will closely emulate the familiar crescent Moon plus star pairing seen on many national flags worldwide. Did an ancient and unrecorded occultation of Venus by the Moon inspire this meme?   Tradition has it that Sultan Alp Arslan settled on the star and crescent for the flag of the Turks after witnessing a close conjunction after the defeat of the Byzantine Army at the Battle of Manzikert on August 26th, 1071 A.D. This tale, however, is almost certainly apocryphal, as no occultations of planets or bright stars by the Moon occurred on or near that date, and only two occultations of Venus by the Moon occurred that year. And Venus was less than two degrees from the Sun on that date, yet another strike against it. In fact, the only occultations of Venus by the Moon in 1071 occurred on June 29th and November 27th. Perhaps Arslan just took a while to decide…

Still, this week’s event provides a great photo-op to have “Fun with Flags” and capture the pair behind your favorite astronomical conjunction-depicting banner. And be sure to send those pics into Universe Today… methinks there’s a good chance of us running a post occultation photo-essay later this week!