Celestial Photobomb: Rare Occultation of Mercury by the Moon Set for Next Week

Have you caught sight of Mercury yet? This coming week is a good time to try, looking low to the west at dusk. We just managed to to nab it with binoculars for the first time during the current apparition this past Sunday from the rooftop of our Air BnB in Casablanca, Morocco.

Mercury is a tough grab under any circumstance, that’s for sure. Brilliant Venus and Jupiter make great guides to finding the elusive planet in late July, as it ping-pongs between the two. The waxing crescent Moon joins the scene in the first week of August, and for a very lucky few, actually occults (passes in front of ) the diminutive innermost world shortly after passing New.

Mercury (arrowed) near the Moon on the morning of June 3rd, 2016. Image credit: Dave Dickinson.
Mercury (arrowed) near the Moon on the morning of June 3rd, 2016. Image credit: Dave Dickinson.

Here’s the low down on everything Mercurial, and circumstances for the coming weeks.

Mercury passes 18′ from the star Regulus on Saturday, July 30th at 19:00 Universal Time (UT), representing the closest passage of a planet near a first magnitude star for 2016.

The Moon then reaches New phase, marking the start of lunation 1158 on August 2nd at 20:45 UT. The Moon then moves on to occult Mercury on Thursday, August 4th at 22:00 UT, just over 48 hours later. The occultation is visible at dusk for observers based in southern Chile and southern Argentina. The rest of us see a close pass. Note that although it is a miss for North America, viewers based on the continent share the same colongitude and will see Mercury only a degree off of the northern limb of the Moon on the night of August 4th. Mercury shines at magnitude +0.01, and presents a 67% illuminated disk 6.3” in size, while the Moon is a slender 5% illuminated.

Credit: Occult 4.2
Occultations of Mercury for 2016. Credit: Occult 4.2. (click image to enlarge).

How early can you see the waxing crescent Moon? Catching the Moon with the naked eye under transparent clear skies isn’t usually difficult when it passes 20 hours old. This cycle, first sightings favor South Africa westward on the night of August 3rd.

Mercury reaches greatest elongation 27.4 degrees east of the Sun 12 days after this occultation on August 16th.

How rare is it? Well occultations of Mercury by the Moon are the toughest to catch of all the naked eye planets, owing to the fact that the planet never strays far from the Sun. Nearly all of these events go unwitnessed, as they occur mainly under daytime skies. And while you can observe Mercury in the daytime near greatest elongation with a telescope, safety precautions need to be taken to assure the Sun is physically blocked from view. Astronomers of yore did exactly that, hoping to glimpse fleeting detail on Mercury while it was perched higher in the sky above the murk of the atmosphere low to the horizon.

In fact, a quick search of ye ole web reveals very few convincing captures of an occultation of Mercury (see the video above). The closest grab thus far comes from astrophotographer Cory Schmitz on June 3rd 2016 based in South Africa:

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Can you see it? The Moon about to occult Mercury on June 3rd. Image credit and copyright: Cory Schmitz.

Can’t wait til next week? The Moon crosses the Hyades open star cluster this week, occulting several stars along the way. The action occurs on the morning of Friday, July 29th culminating with an occultation of +1 magnitude Aldebaran by the 23% illuminated Moon. Texas and Mexico are well-placed to see this event under dark skies. A small confession: we actually prefer occultations of planets and stars by the waxing Moon, as the dark edge of the Moon is leading during ingress, making it much easier to witness and the exact moment the Moon blots out the object.

Still want more? The Moon actually goes on to occult Jupiter on August 6th for the South Pacific. Viewers farther west in southeast Asia might just spy this one in the daytime. This is the second occultation of Jupiter by the Moon in a series of four in 2016.

Looking west on the evening of August 4th. Image credit: Stellarium.
Looking west on the evening of August 4th. Image credit: Stellarium.

Keep and eye on those planets in August, as they’re now all currently visible in the dusk sky. The Moon, Regulus and Venus also form a tight five degree triangle on the evening of August 4th, followed by a slightly wider grouping of Venus, Jupiter and the Moon around August 25th.

More to come on that soon. Be sure to check the planet Mercury off of your life list this coming week, using the nearby waxing crescent Moon as a guide.

This Friday: The Moon Meets Mercury in the Dawn Sky

So, have you been following the path of the waning Moon through the dawn sky this week? The slender Moon visits some interesting environs over the coming weekend, and heralds the start of Ramadan across the Islamic world next week.

First up, the planet Mercury rises an hour before the Sun in the dawn this week. Mercury reaches greatest elongation west of the Sun on Sunday, June 5th at 9:00 Universal Time (UT).

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The Moon meets Mercury on the morning of June 3rd. Image credit: Stellarium.

The slender waning crescent Moon passes less than one degree from +0.8 magnitude Mercury (both 24 degrees from the Sun) on the morning of Friday, June 3rd at 10:00 UT. While this is a close shave worldwide, the Moon will actually occult (pass in front of) Mercury for a very few observers fortunate enough to be based on the Falkland Islands in the southern Atlantic.

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The occultation footprint of the June 3rd event. Image credit Occult 4.0.

The Moon is 5.2% illuminated and 41 hours from New during the occultation. Meanwhile, Mercury shines at magnitude +0.8 and displays an 8.6” 33.5% illuminated disk during the event. Also, watch for ashen light or Earthshine faintly lighting up the nighttime side of the Moon. You’re seeing sunlight, bounced off of the land, sea and (mostly) cloud tops of the fat waxing gibbous Earth back on to the lunar surface, one light-second away. The Big Bear Solar Observatory has a project known as Project Earthshine which seeks to measure and understand the changes in albedo (known as global dimming) and its effects on climate change.

The Moon occults Mercury three times in 2016. Occultations of the innermost planet are especially elusive, as they nearly always occur close to the Sun under a daytime sky. This week’s occultation occurs less than 48 hours from greatest elongation; the last time one was closer time-wise was March 5th, 2008, and this won’t be topped until February 18th, 2026, with an occultation of Mercury by the Moon just 18 hours prior to greatest elongation. And speaking of which, can you spy +0.8 magnitude Mercury near the crescent Moon on Friday… during the daytime? Use binocs, note where Mercury was in relation to the Moon before sunrise, but be sure to physically block that blinding Sun behind a building or hill!

Mercury reaches greatest elongation six times in 2016: three in the dusk (western), and three in the dawn (eastern).

The Moon also passes less than five degrees from the planet Venus on June 5th at 2:00 UT, though both are only 2 degrees from the Sun. Fun fact: the bulk of the Sun actually occults Venus for 47 hours as seen from the Earth from June 6th through June 8th.

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Venus in SOHO’s view. Image credit: SOHO/NASA

You can observe the passage of Venus through the 15 degree wide field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera over the next few weeks until July 5th.

Venus reaches superior conjunction on the far side of the Sun 1.74 astronomical units (AU) from the Earth at 21:00 UT on Monday, June 6th.

New Moon occurs at 4:00 UT on Sunday, June 5th, marking the start of lunation 1156.

The Moon and Ramadan

The first sighting of the slim crescent Moon also marks the start of the month of Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkey) on the Islamic calendar. Unlike the western Gregorian calendar, which is strictly solar-based, and the Jewish calendar, which seeks to reconcile lunar and solar cycles, the Islamic is solely based on the 29.5 synodic period of the Moon. This means that it moves forward on average 11 days per Gregorian year. The hallmark of Ramadan is fasting from dawn to dusk, and Ramadan 2016 is an especially harsh one, falling across the northern hemisphere summer solstice (and the longest day of the year) on June 20th. The earliest sunrise occurs on June 14th, and latest sunset on June 27th for latitude 40 degrees north. Finally, the Earth reaches aphelion or its farthest point from the Sun on July 4th at 1.01675 AU or 157.5 million kilometers distant.

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The Moon meets Mercury (arrowed) in 2012. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

In 2016, the Moon will first likely be spotted from the west coast of South America on Sunday night June 5th, though many locales worldwide may not see the Moon until June 6th. There can be some disparity as to just when Ramadan starts based on the first sighting of the crescent Moon. The Islamic calendar is also unique in that it still relies on direct observation of the waxing crescent Moon. Other calendars often use an estimated approximation in a bid to keep their timekeeping in sync with the heavens. The computus estimation (not a supervillain, though it certainly sounds like one!) used by the Catholic Church to predict the future date of Easter, for example, fixes the vernal equinox on March 21st, though it actually falls on March 20th until 2048, when it actually slips to March 19th.

Ramadan has been observed on occasion in space by Muslim astronauts, and NASA even has guidelines stipulating that observant astros will follow the same protocols as their departure point from the Earth (in the foreseeable future, that’s the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Can you see the open cluster M35, just six degrees north (right) of the thin crescent Moon on the evening of Monday, June 6th?

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Looking west on the evening of Monday, June 6th. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software.

We think its great to see direct astronomical observation still having a hand in everyday human affairs. This also holds a special significance to us, as we’re currently traveling in Morocco.

Don’t miss the meeting of Mercury and the Moon on Friday morning, and the return of the Moon to the dusk skies next week.

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.

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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!