What is a Waxing Moon?

As you’ve probably noticed, the Moon looks different from one evening to the next. Sometimes we see a New Moon, when the Moon is enshrouded in shadow. At other times, we see a Full Moon, when the entire face of the Moon is illuminated. And of course, there are the many phases in between, where portions of the Moon are illuminated.

This is what is called a Lunar Cycle, a 29 ½-day period (aka. lunar month) where the Moon becomes brighter and dimmer, depending on its orientation with the Earth and the Sun. During the first half of a lunar month, when the amount of illumination on the Moon is increasing, astronomers call this a “waxing moon”.

Lunar Cycle:

To understand the Lunar Cycle, we first must consider the Moon’s orbit in relation to Earth. Basically, the Moon orbits Earth, and Earth orbits the Sun, which means the Moon is always half illuminated by the latter. But from our perspective here on Earth, which part of the Moon is illuminated – and how much – changes over time.

When the Sun, the Moon and Earth are perfectly lined up, the angle between the Sun and the Moon is 0-degrees. At this point, the side of the Moon facing the Sun is fully illuminated, and the side facing the Earth is enshrouded in darkness. We call this a New Moon.

After this, the phase of the Moon changes, because the angle between the Moon and the Sun is increasing from our perspective. A week after a New Moon, and the Moon and Sun are separated by 90-degrees, which effects what we will see. And then, when the Moon and Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth, they’re at 180-degrees – which corresponds to a Full Moon.

Waxing vs. Waning:

The period in which a Moon will go from a New Moon to a Full Moon and back again is known as “Lunar Month”. One of these lasts 28 days, and encompasses what are known as “waxing” and “waning” Moons. During the former period, the Moon brightens and its angle relative to the Sun and Earth increases.

A waxing gibbous Moon from October 12th, headed towards Full this weekend. Image credit and copyright: John Brimacombe.
A waxing gibbous Moon from October 12th, headed towards Full this weekend. Image credit and copyright: John Brimacombe.

When the Moon is in between the Earth and the Sun, the side of the Moon facing away from the Earth is fully illuminated, and the side we can see is shrouded in darkness. As the Moon orbits the Earth, the angle between the Moon and the Sun increases. At this point, the angle between the Moon and Sun is 0 degrees, which gradually increases over the next two weeks. This is what astronomers call a waxing moon.

After the first week, the angle between the Moon and the Sun is 90-degrees and continues to increase to 180-degrees, when the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the Earth. When the Moon starts to decrease its angle again, going from 180-degrees back down to 0-degrees, astronomers say that it’s a waning moon. In other words, when the Moon is waning, it will have less and less illumination every night until it’s a New Moon.

Waxing Phases:

The period when the Moon is waxing occurs between a New Moon and a Full Moon, which is characterized by many changes in appearance. The first is known as a Waxing crescent, where 1-49% of the Moon is illuminated. Which side appears illuminated will depend on the observer’s location. For those living in the northern hemisphere, the right side will appear illuminated; whereas for those in the southern hemisphere, the reverse is the case.

Next up is the First Quarter, where 50% of the Moon’s face is illuminated – again, the right side for those in the northern hemisphere and the left for those in the south. This is followed by a Waxing Gibbous Moon, where 51 – 99% of the Moon’s surface is illuminated – right side in the northern hemisphere, left side in the southern. The waxing phase concludes with a Full Moon.

We have written many articles about the Moon here at Universe Today. Here’s What are the Phases of the Moon?, What is a Waning Moon?, What is a Hunter’s Moon?, A Red Moon – Not a Sign of the Apocalypse!, How Did the Moon Form? and What is the Distance to the Moon?

NASA has a cool list of all the Moon phases over the course of 6000 years. And here’s a calculator that shows the current phase of the Moon.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

Sources:

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:

Image credit:
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.

Watch the Moon Occult Vesta and Aldebaran This Weekend

So, did you miss yesterday’s occultation of Venus by the Moon? It was a tough one, to be sure, as the footpath for the event crossed Europe and Asia in the daytime. Watch that Moon, though, as it crosses back into the evening sky later this week, and occults (passes in front of) the bright star Aldebaran for eastern North America and, for Hawaii-based observers, actually covers the brightest of the asteroids, 4 Vesta. Continue reading “Watch the Moon Occult Vesta and Aldebaran This Weekend”

How to See Planet Mercury at its Best in 2014

 There’s an often told anecdote that astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus never spied Mercury. And while this tale is almost certainly apocryphal, it does speak to just how elusive the innermost planet of our solar system really is.

Never seen Mercury for yourself? This final week of January offers a good time to try, as Mercury reaches greatest elongation east of the Sun on Friday, January 31st.

This will offer northern hemisphere viewers one on the best chances to spot the fleeting world low to the west immediately after local sunset. And although we get on average six apparitions of Mercury per year – three each in the dawn and dusk – all apparitions aren’t created equal.

The approximate moment of greatest elongation occurs on January 31st at 10:00 UT / 5:00 AM EST, when Mercury is 18.4 degrees east of the Sun. This is only 0.5 degrees shy of the smallest elongation for Mercury that can occur, as the planet reaches perihelion just three days later on February 3rd at 0.3075 Astronomical Units (AUs) from the Sun. The last time this was surpassed was the evening elongation of February 16th, 2013th, and the next time it’ll be topped is October 16th, 2015 at just 18.1 degrees from the Sun.

Path of Mercury from January 27th to February 12th. (Created using Starry Night).
Path of Mercury from January 27th to February 12th as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. (Created using Starry Night Education Software).

And though this elongation is closer than usual, this also works in the Mercury-spotter’s favor. At greatest elongation, Mercury will present a 50% illuminated 7 arc second disk, readily apparent in a small telescope. But a also means that Mercury will appear almost a full magnitude brighter than it does when it reaches greatest elongation near aphelion, as it last did on March 31st of last year, and will do again on March 14th of this year.

Mercury will shine at magnitude -0.4 low towards the west into this coming weekend. We managed to pick up Mercury with binoculars on January 16th and have since managed to start tracking the planet unaided since January 18th.

Mercury also has another factor going for it, in terms of the angle of the evening ecliptic. Following ahead of the Sun, Mercury occupies a space that the Sun will trace up its apparent path along the ecliptic as it begins its long slow crawl northward towards the Vernal Equinox on March 20th. This means that Mercury is almost perpendicular above the western horizon at dusk and is currently getting a maximum boost above the atmospheric murk.

Mercury also gets joined by a razor thin waxing crescent Moon just over 24 hours past New sliding by it on the evening of Friday, January 31st. Look for the Moon five degrees to the right of Mercury on the 31st. The Moon will be a much easier catch on the February 1st when its 10 degrees above Mercury. And can you spy the +1 magnitude star Fomalhaut in the constellation Piscis Austrinus just 20 degrees to the south of Mercury?

Stellarium
The orientation of the Moon and Mercury on the evening of February 1st. Credit: Stellarium.

And speaking of the Moon, this week’s New Moon is the second of the month, a feat that repeats in March 2014 and leaves the month of February “New Moon-less…” such an occurrence in either instance is informally known as a Black Moon.

Orbiting the Sun once every 88 days, Mercury completes about 4.15 circuits of the Sun for every Earth year. From our Earthbound vantage point, however, Mercury seems to only orbit the Sun 3.15 times a year. Thus 6 elongations (3 in the dusk and 3 in the dawn) will occur every year, through 7 can occur, as last happened in 2011 and will occur again next year in 2015.

August 15th, 2012.
Mercury (to the lower left) and the Moon on August 15th, 2012. (Photo by author).

After this weekend, Mercury will resume its plunge towards the horizon through early February. Mercury will begin retrograde (westward) apparent motion against the starry background on February 6th before resuming direct (eastward motion) on February 27th. And although astrologers may  find that “Mercury in retrograde” is a convenient “blame magnet,” they’re also falling prey to a logical fallacy known as retrofitting, as Mercury spends a longer fraction of time than any other planet “in retrograde” at about 20%!

From there, Mercury heads towards inferior conjunction between the Earth and the Sun on Saturday, February 15th, passing just 3.7 degrees north of the solar disk. You can catch Mercury entering into the field of view of the Solar Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) LASCO C3 camera from February 12th to February 18th.

And although Mercury misses this time, we’re not that far away from the next transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun on May 9th, 2016.

Up for more? An even tougher challenge is to attempt to spot Mercury… in the daytime. We’ve noted this possibility before as Mercury reaches maximum elongation from the Sun while still in the negative magnitude range. Of course, you want to physically block the Sun out of view, and don’t even try sweeping the sky near the Sun visually with binoculars or a telescope! You’ll need a clear, blue sky for maximum contrast and a polarizing filter may help in your quest… but this should be possible under exceptional conditions.

Good luck, and be sure to send those Mercury pics in to Universe Today!

Ultra-Thin “Young” Crescent Moon Sighted from U.S. Southwest

 Earlier this week, Universe Today challenged North American readers to spot the slender, exceptionally “young” crescent Moon on the evening of New Year’s Day.

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.

Credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory
A thin crescent Moon (arrowed) Credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory

Concerning the feat, Weasner wrote on his observing blog:

“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.

Mike Cadien (left) and Rob Sparks (right) setting up to catch the crescent Moon. Credit- Mike Weasner.
Jim Cadien (left) and Rob Sparks (right) setting up to catch the crescent Moon. Credit– Mike Weasner.

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!

Our own modest attempt to catch the waning crescent Moon 29 hours prior to New back in August 2012. Photo by author.
Our own modest attempt to catch the waning crescent Moon 29 hours prior to New back in August 2012. Photo by author.

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.

The January 2nd 2014, waxing crescent Moon plus "Earthshine" as captured by Ron Cottrell from Oro Valley, Arizona. Ron also notes that this illumination of the night time side of the the Moon is also known as "da Vinci's glow".
The January 2nd 2014 waxing crescent Moon plus “Earthshine” as captured by Ron Cottrell from Oro Valley, Arizona. Ron also notes that this illumination of the nighttime side of the the Moon is also known as the “da Vinci” glow. Credit-Ron Cottrell.

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.

Optimal sighting locations through the end of September 2014.
Optimal sighting locations through the end of September 2014. Positions are marked for where the Moon is visible at local sunset and becomes visible with optical assistance around 14 hours after New. Prospects for a “first sighting” get better westward of each location on the dates noted. Note that the March 1st event offers decent prospects for the US northeast and the Canadian Maritimes. Graphic created by author.

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.

Wonder what the sighting opportunities are for the next waxing crescent Moon are worldwide? Two great online resources are the HM Nautical Office’s Einstein Moonwatch Project and Moonsighting.com.

The South African Astronomical Observatory also maintains a site with predictions worldwide.

See the Youngest Moon of Your Life Tonight

The new year starts out with a bang, offering the chance to spy an exceptionally thin crescent moon shortly after sunset. Here’s how to find it. 

The moon’s age is determined by how many hours or days have passed since new moon phase. New moon occurs once a month when the moon lies in nearly the same direction as the sun in the sky. No one can see a new moon because it stays very close to the sun and lost in the glare of daylight.

To attempt your personal youngest moon yet, find a flat horizon to the southwest and start looking about 10 minutes after sunset. This panel shows the sky from four different locations. The times shown are 20 minute after local sunset and the moon's elevation at those times is also noted. Created with Stellarium
To attempt your personal youngest moon yet, find a flat horizon to the southwest and start looking about 10 minutes after sunset. This panel shows the sky from four different locations. The times and moon’s elevation are shown for 20 minutes after local sunset. The moon’s orientation is approximate. Created with Stellarium

Under favorable circumstances it isn’t too difficult to spot a 1-day-old moon, referred to as a young moon because it’s the first or youngest bit of moon we see after new moon. Young moons are delicate and tucked far down in the twilight glow shortly after sunset. Spotting one fewer than 24 hours old requires planning. You need a flat horizon, haze-free skies and a pair of binoculars. Being on time’s important, too. Be sure to arrive at your observing spot shortly before sundown. Knowing the point on the horizon where the sun sets will guide you to the crescent’s location.

An 18-hour-old crescent moon photographed in a 12-inch telescope on April 22, 2012. Credit and copyright: John Chumack and Maurice Massey
An 18-hour-old crescent moon photographed in a 12-inch telescope on April 22, 2012. Credit and copyright: John Chumack and Maurice Massey

Ready to rock and roll? New moon occurred at 5:14 a.m. (CST) today. For the U.S. Midwest that makes the moon approximately 12 hours old at sunset this evening. Since the moon moves to the east or away from the sun at the rate of one moon-diameter per hour, skywatchers in the western U.S. will have it somewhat easier shot at seeing it. In Denver, the moon will be 13 hours old, while in San Francisco it will have aged to 14 hours. Hawaii residents will have their shot at a 16-hour-old moon, still very young but farther yet from the sun and easier to see. To know exactly when the sun and moon set for your city, click HERE.

Luckily you’ll have more than just the sunset point to help know in which direction to look; Venus, itself a very thin crescent moon at the moment, hovers 7-8 degrees to the upper left of the moon. You should have no problem seeing a crescent Venus in binoculars.

The record for youngest moon spotted with the naked eye goes to writer and amateur astronomer Steven James O’Meara, who nabbed a 15 hour 32 minute crescent in May 1990. The skinniest moon ever seen with optical aid goes to Mohsen G. Mirsaeed of Tehran on September 7, 2002 at just 11 hours 40 minutes past new.

Venus, seen here several years back to the lower right of the moon along with Jupiter, will not only help with focus tonight but will guide toward the thin crescent. Credit: Bob King
Venus, seen here several years back to the lower right of the moon along with Jupiter, will not only help with focusing tonight but will guide skywatchers toward the thin crescent. Credit: Bob King

Based on these facts, it’s likely few will see the faint arc of moon with the naked eye especially in the eastern U.S. where the crescent will be only 11 hours old. Binoculars and telescopes will be required for most of us.  To meet tonight’s challenge, make sure your binoculars are focused at infinity before you start. Again, Venus comes to our aid. Carefully focus the planet until you see its crescent as sharply as possible. You can also focus on any clouds that might be present. Lacking that, aim for the most distant object in the landscape. Focus is critical. If you’re off, the thin moon will soften, spread out and appear even fainter.

I couldn't resist adding this pic of the waning moon taken by one of the International Space Station astronauts as it rose over the limb of the Earth. Credit: NASA
I couldn’t resist adding this fine photo of the waning moon taken by one of the International Space Station astronauts as it rose over the limb of the Earth. Credit: NASA

Start looking for the moon about 10 minutes after sundown in nearly the same direction as the sunset point within a strip of sky as wide as a typical binocular field of view or about 5 degrees. Slowly scan up and down and back and forth over the next 25 minutes looking for a wispy sliver of light against the deepening blue sky. Should you find the moon, you might be surprised at the broken appearance of the arc. These seeming breaks are caused by oblique lighting on crater walls and mountain peaks creating shadows long enough to bite into and hide portions of the moon’s sunlit edge.

I wish you the best in your search tonight for what could be one of the rarest astronomical sightings of your life. It won’t be easy. Whether you succeed or not, please drop us a comment and share your story.

Conjunctions to Watch For in July

The planets are slowly returning into view this month, bashfully peeking out from behind the Sun in the dawn & dusk sky. This month offers a bonanza of photogenic conjunctions, involving the Moon, planets and bright stars.

The action begins tonight on July 8th, as the waxing crescent Moon joins the planet Venus in the dusk sky. The razor thin Moon will be a challenge on Monday night, as it just passed New on the morning of the 8th at 3:14AM EDT/7:14 Universal Time (UT). The record for spotting the thin crescent with the naked eye currently stands at 15 hours and 32 minutes, completed by Stephen O’Meara on May 1990. Binoculars help considerably in this endeavor.  Wait until 15 minutes after local sunset, and then begin patiently sweeping the horizon.

Mr. Thierry Legault completed an ultimate photographic challenge earlier today, capturing the Moon at the precise moment of  New phase!

The Moon & Venus on the evening of July 9th from latitude 30 degrees north, about 30 minutes after sunset. (Created by the author using Stellarium).
The Moon & Venus on the evening of July 9th as seen from latitude 30 degrees north, about 30 minutes after sunset. (Created by the author using Stellarium).

This week  marks the start of lunation 1120. The Moon will be much easier to nab for observers worldwide on Tuesday night, July 9th for observers worldwide. The sighting of the waxing crescent Moon will also mark the start of the Muslim month of Ramadan for 2013. Due to the angle of the ecliptic in July, many northern hemisphere observers may not spot the Moon until Wednesday night on July 10th, about 6.7 degrees south west of -4.0 magnitude Venus.

Did you know? There are Guidelines for the Performance of Islamic Rites for Muslims aboard the International Space Station. It’s interesting to note that the timing of the rituals follows the point from which the astronaut originally embarked from the Earth, which is exclusively the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the foreseeable future of manned spaceflight.

Malaysia’s first astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor observed Ramadan aboard the International Space Station in 2007.

From there, the crescent Moon fattens, meeting up with Saturn and Spica on the evenings of July 15th and 16th. The Moon will actually occult (pass in front of) the bright star Spica on the evening of July 15/16th at ~3:33UT/11:33PM EDT (on the 15th) for observers in Central America and western South America. The rest of us will see a near miss worldwide.

The waxing crescent Moon nearing Spica on the evening of the 15th at 10PM EDT. The Moon reaches 1st Quarter on the same evening at 11:18PM EDT. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
The waxing crescent Moon nearing Spica on the evening of the 15th at 10PM EDT. The Moon reaches 1st Quarter phase on the same evening at 11:18PM EDT. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

This is the 13th in a cycle of 18 occultations of Spica by our Moon spanning 2012-2013. Spica is one of four stars brighter than magnitude +1.4 that lie close enough to the ecliptic to be occulted by our Moon, the others being Antares, Regulus and Aldebaran. Saturn will lie 3 degrees from the Moon on the evening of July 16th.

Can you nab Spica and Saturn near the Moon with binoculars in the daytime around the 15th? It can be done, using the afternoon daytime Moon as a guide. Crystal clear skies (a rarity in the northern hemisphere summertime, I know) and physically blocking the Sun behind a building or hill helps.

The waxing gibbous Moon will also occult +2.8 Alpha Librae for South Africa on July 17th around 17:09UT & +4.4th magnitude Xi Ophiuchi for much of North America on the night of July 19th-20th.

And speaking of Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo lies only a little over a degree (two Full Moon diameters) from Venus only the evenings of July 21st & the 22nd. 77.5 light years distant, Regulus is currently over 100 times fainter at magnitude +1.4. Can you squeeze both into the field of view of your telescope at low power? Venus’s mythical ‘moon’ Neith lives!

Venus can even occult Regulus on rare occasions, as last occurred on July 7th, 1959 and will happen next on October 1st, 2044.

But there’s morning action afoot as well. The planets Mars and Jupiter have emerged from solar conjunction on April 18th and June 19th, 2013 respectively, and can now be seen low in the dawn skies about 30 minutes before sunrise.

Mars and Jupiter in a close conjunction on the morning of July 22nd, about 30 minutes before sunrise as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
Mars and Jupiter in a close conjunction on the morning of July 22nd, about 30 minutes before sunrise as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

Mars approaches Jupiter in the dawn until the pair is only 0.79 degrees (about 48 arc minutes) apart on Monday, July 22nd. Mars shines at magnitude +1.6 and shows a tiny 3.9” disk, while Jupiter displays a 32.5” disk shining at magnitude -1.9 on this date. Conjunction occurs at about 7:00 UT/3:00 AM EDT, after which the two will begin to race apart. Mercury is visible beginning its morning apparition over 5 degrees to the lower right of the pair (see above).

Jupiter will reach opposition and reenter the evening sky on January 5th, 2014, while Mars won’t do the same until April 8th of next year. Weird factoid alert: neither Jupiter or Mars reach opposition in 2013! What effect does this have on terrestrial affairs? Absolutely none, well unless you’re a planetary imager/observer…

Mars also reaches its most northern declination of 2013 of 24 degrees in the constellation Gemini on July 16th at 7:00 AM EDT/11:00 UT.  Mars can wander as far as declination 27 degrees north, as last happened in 1993.

Finally, are you observing from southern Mexico this week and up for a true challenge? The asteroid 238 Hypatia occults a +7.4 magnitude star from 10:13-10:49 UT on July 10th in the constellation Pisces for up to 29 seconds. This event will be bright enough to watch with binoculars- check out our best prospects for asteroid occultations of stars in 2013 here and here.

Good luck, clear skies, and be sure to post those astro-pics in the Universe Today’s Flickr community!

Incredible Astrophoto: The Youngest Possible New Moon by Thierry Legault

It’s always striking to see a tiny sliver of the New Moon. But you’ve probably never seen a sliver this tiny or a Moon this “new” before. This brand new image by astrophotographer extraordinaire Thierry Legault was taken this morning and is the youngest possible lunar crescent, with the “age” of the Moon at this instant being exactly zero — at the precise moment of the New Moon. The image was taken in full daylight at 07:14 UTC on July 8, 2013.

Normally it is just about impossible (and dangerous) to see this, as when the Moon is this “new,” the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun and it is so close to the Sun in our sky that it can’t be seen because of the Sun’s glare. Plus, the New Moon appears as an extremely thin crescent which is barely brighter than the blue sky. But Thierry has designed a special sunshade to prevent sunlight from entering the telescope (see it below).

Thierry says the irregularities and discontinuities seen in the edge of the crescent are caused by the relief at the edge of the lunar disk; i.e. mountains and craters on the Moon. Very cool!

The “New Moon” is defined as the instant when the Moon is at the same ecliptic longitude as the Sun. When we refer to the “age” of the Moon, it is the number of hours (or days) since New Moon.

From Thierry’s shooting site in Elancourt, France (a suburb of Paris), the angular separation between the Moon and the Sun was only 4.4° (nine solar diameters).

“At this very small separation, the crescent is extremely thin (a few arc seconds at maximum) and, above all, it is drowned in the solar glare, the blue sky being about 400 times brighter than the crescent itself in infrared (and probably more than 1000 times in visible light),” Thierry writes on his website. “In order to reduce the glare, the images have been taken in close infrared and a pierced screen, placed just in front of the telescope, prevents the sunlight from entering directly in the telescope.”

Thierry Legault with his special telescope filter for blocking the Sun's rays. Image courtesy Thierry Legault.
Thierry Legault with his special telescope filter for blocking the Sun’s rays. Image courtesy Thierry Legault.

Thierry cautions anyone trying to see this with the naked eye. Basically, don’t try it.

“The very thin crescent of the New Moon cannot be observed visually whatever the instrument (naked eye, binoculars, telescope, etc),” he said. “Moreover, pointing a celestial object that close to the Sun is dangerous for the observer and his equipment if it is not performed under the control of an experienced astronomer and with the proper equipment.”

See more information at Thierry’s website. He also took another image of the New Moon at the exact moment back in 2010.

If you want to keep track of what the Moon will look like each night (or day!), Universe Today has a great app for that, our Phases of the Moon app, available for iOS or Android.

What is a Waning Moon?

Human beings have been observing the Moon for as long as they have walked the Earth. Throughout recorded and pre-recorded history, they have paid close attention to its phases and accorded them particular significance. This has played a major role in shaping the mythological and astrological traditions of every known culture.

With the birth of astronomy as a scientific discipline, how the Moon appears in the night sky (and sometimes during the day) has also gone long way towards helping us to understand how our Solar System works. It all comes down to the Lunar Cycle, the two key parts of this cycle involve the “waxing and waning” of the Moon. But what exactly does this mean?-day

Lunar Cycle:

First, we need to consider the orbital parameters of the Earth’s only satellite. For starters, since the Moon orbits Earth, and Earth orbits the Sun, the Moon is always half illuminated by the latter. But from our perspective here on Earth, which part of the Moon is illuminated – and the amount to which it is illuminated – changes over time.

When the Sun, the Moon and Earth are perfectly lined up, the angle between the Sun and the Moon is 0-degrees. At this point, the side of the Moon facing the Sun is fully illuminated, and the side facing the Earth is enshrouded in darkness. We call this a New Moon.

After this, the phase of the Moon changes, because the angle between the Moon and the Sun is increasing from our perspective. A week after a New Moon, and the Moon and Sun are separated by 90-degrees, which effects what we will see. And then, when the Moon and Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth, they’re at 180-degrees – which corresponds to a Full Moon.

Waxing vs. Waning:

The period in which a Moon will go from a New Moon to a Full Moon and back again is known as “Lunar Month”. One of these lasts 28 days, and encompasses what are known as “waxing” and “waning” Moons. During the former period, the Moon brightens and its angle relative to the Sun and Earth increases.

Synthetic view of the waxing Moon as viewed from Earth on 2013-10-15 17:00:00 UTC [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Synthetic view of the waxing Moon as viewed from Earth on 2013-10-15 17:00:00 UTC. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
When the Moon starts to decrease its angle again, going from 180-degrees back down to 0-degrees, astronomers say that it’s a waning moon. In other words, when the Moon is waning, it will have less and less illumination every night until it’s a New Moon.

Waning Phases:

When the Moon is no longer full, but it hasn’t reached a quarter moon – i.e. when it’s half illuminated from our perspective – we say that it’s a Waning Gibbous Moon. This is the exact reverse of a Waxing Gibbous Moon, when the Moon is increasing in brightness from a New Moon to a Full Moon.

This is followed by a Third Quarter (or last quarter) Moon. During this period, 50% of the Moon’s disc will be illuminated (left side in the northern hemisphere, and the right in the southern), which is the opposite of how it would appear during a First Quarter. These phases are often referred to as a “Half Moon”, since half the disc is illuminated at the time.

The moon in its waning gibbous phase on Sept. 12, 2014. Photo taken with a Canon 700D attached to a Maksutov 127mm telescope. Credit: Sarah&Simon Fisher
The moon in its waning gibbous phase on Sept. 12, 2014. Photo taken with a Canon 700D attached to a Maksutov 127mm telescope. Credit: Sarah&Simon Fisher

Finally, a Waning Crescent is when the Moon appears as a sliver in the night sky, where between 49–1% of one side is illuminated after a Full Moon (again, left in the northern hemisphere, right in the southern). This is the opposite of a Waxing Crescent, when 1-49% of the other wide is illuminated before it reaches a Full Moon.

Even today, thousands of years later, human beings still look up at the Moon and are inspired by what they see. Not only have we explored Earth’s only satellite with robotic missions, but even crewed missions have been there and taken samples directly from the surface. And yet, it still possesses enough mystery to keep us inspired and guessing.

We have written many interesting articles about the Moon here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Moon’s Real Name?, Does the Moon Have Different Names?, What are the Phases of the Moon?, Is the Moon a Planet?, What is the Distance to the Moon?, and Who Were the First Men on the Moon?

Want to know when the next waning gibbous moon is going to happen? NASA has a list of moon phases for a period of 6000 years.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

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