Observing Challenge: Watch Asteroid 3 Juno Occult a +7th Magnitude Star Tonight

One of the better asteroid occultations of 2014 is coming right up tonight, and Canadian and U.S. observers in the northeast have a front row seat.

The event occurs in the early morning hours of Thursday, November 20th, when the asteroid 3 Juno occults the 7.4 magnitude star SAO 117176. The occultation kicks off in the wee hours as the 310 kilometre wide “shadow” of 3 Juno touches down and crosses North America from 6:54 to 6:57 Universal Time (UT), which is 12:54 to 12:57 AM Central, or 1:54 to 1:57 AM Eastern Standard Time.

Steve Preston
The path of tomorrow’s occultation along with the circumstances. Credit: Steve Preston’s Asteroid Occultation website.

The maximum predicted length of the occultation for observers based along the centerline is just over 27 seconds. Note that 3 Juno also shines at magnitude +8.5, so both it and the star are binocular objects. The event will sweep across Winnipeg and Lake of the Woods straddling the U.S. Canadian border, just missing Duluth Minnesota before crossing Lake Superior and over Ottawa and Montreal and passing into northern Vermont and New Hampshire. Finally, the path crosses over Portland Maine, and heads out to sea over the Atlantic Ocean.

Don’t live along the path? Observers worldwide will still see a close pass of 3 Juno and the +7th magnitude star as both do their best to impersonate a close binary pair. If you’ve never crossed spotting 3 Juno off of your astro-“life list,” now is a good time to try.

The position of the target star HIP43357/SAO 117176 is:

Right Ascension: 8 Hours 49’ 54”

Declination: +2° 21’ 44”

Starry Night
A finder chart for 3 Juno and HIP43357. Stars are noted down to +10th magnitude. Created using Starry Night Education software.

Generally, the farther east you are along the track, the higher the pair will be above the horizon when the event occurs, and the better your observing prospects will be in terms of altitude or elevation. From Portland Maine — the last port of call for the shadow of 3 Juno on dry land — the pair will be 35 degrees above the horizon in the constellation of Hydra.

The projected sky cover at the time of the occultation. Credit: NWS/NOAA.

As always, the success in observing any astronomical event is at the whim of the weather, which can be fickle in North America in November. As of 48 hours out from the occultation, weather prospects look dicey, with 70%-90% cloud cover along the track. But remember, you don’t necessarily need a fully clear sky to make a successful observation… just a clear view near the head of Hydra asterism. Remember the much anticipated occultation of Regulus by the asteroid 163 Erigone earlier this year? Alas, it went unrecorded due to pesky but pervasive cloud cover. Perhaps this week’s occultation will fall prey to the same, but it’s always worth a try. In asteroid occultations as in free throws, you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take!

The path of the occcultation across eastern North America. Credit: Google Earth/BREIT IDEAS observatory.

Why study asteroid occultations? Sure, it’s cool to see a star wink out as an asteroid passes in front of it, but there’s real science to be done as well. Expect the star involved in Thursday’s occultation to dip down about two magnitudes (six times) in brightness. The International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA) is always seeking careful measurements of asteroid occultations of bright stars. If enough observations are made along the track, a shape profile of the target asteroid emerges. And the possible discovery of an “asteroid moon” is not unheard of using this method, as the background star winks out multiple times.

UT-Juno Occultation
3 Juno as imaged by the 100″ Hooker telescope at the Mt. Wilson observatory at different wavelengths using adaptive optics. Credit: NASA/JPL/The Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

3 Juno was discovered crossing Cetus by astronomer Karl Harding on September 1st, 1804 from the Lilienthal Observatory in Germany. The 3rd asteroid discovered after 1 Ceres and 2 Pallas, 3 Juno ranks 5th in size at an estimated 290 kilometres in diameter. In the early 19th century, 3 Juno was also considered a planet along with these other early discoveries, until the ranks swelled to a point where the category of asteroid was introduced. A denizen of the asteroid belt, 3 Juno roams from 2 A.U.s from the Sun at perigee to 3.4 A.U.s at apogee, and can reach a maximum brightness of +7.4th magnitude as seen from the Earth. No space mission has ever been dispatched to study 3 Juno, although we will get a good look at its cousin 1 Ceres next April when NASA’s Dawn spacecraft enters orbit around the king of the asteroids.

3 Juno reaches opposition and its best observing position on January 29th, 2015.

3 Juno also has an interesting place in the history of asteroid occultations. The first ever predicted and successfully observed occultation of a star by an asteroid involved 3 Juno on February 19th, 1958. Another occultation involving the asteroid on December 11th, 1979 was even more widely observed. Only a handful of such events were caught prior to the 1990s, as it required ultra-precise computation and knowledge of positions and orbits. Today, dozens of asteroid occultations are predicted each month worldwide.

Observing an asteroid occultation can be challenging but rewarding. You can watch Thursday’s event with binoculars, but you’ll want to use a telescope to make a careful analysis. You can either run video during the event, or simply watch and call out when the star dims and brightens as you record audio. Precise timing and pinpointing your observing location via GPS is key, and human reaction time plays a factor as well. Be sure to locate the target star well beforehand. For precise time, you can run WWV radio in the background.

And finally, you also might see… nothing. Asteroid paths have a small amount of uncertainty to them, and although these negative observations aren’t as thrilling to watch, they’re important to the overall scientific effort.

Good luck, and let us know of your observational tales of anguish and achievement!

Midway Between Storms: Our Guide to the 2014 Leonid Meteors

If there’s one meteor shower that has the potential to bring on a storm of epic proportions, it’s the Leonids. Peaking once every 33 years, these fast movers hail from the Comet 55P Temple-Tuttle, and radiate from the Sickle, or backwards “question mark” asterism in the constellation Leo.  And although 2014 is an “off year” in terms of storm prospects, it’s always worth taking heed these chilly November mornings as we await the lion’s roar once again.

The prospects: 2014 sees the expected peak of the Leonids arriving around 22:00 Universal Time (UT) which is 5:00 PM EST. Locally speaking, a majority of meteor showers tend to peak in the early AM hours past midnight, as the observer’s location turns forward facing into the oncoming meteor stream. Think of driving in an early November snowstorm, with the car being the Earth and the flakes of snow as the oncoming meteors. And if you’ve (been fortunate enough?) to have never seen snow, remember that it’s the front windshield of the car going down the highway that catches all of the bugs!

This all means that in 2014, the Asian Far East will have an optimal viewing situation for the Leonids, though observers worldwide should still be vigilant. Of course, meteor showers never read online prognostications such as these, and often tend to arrive early or late.  The Leonids also have a broad range of activity spanning November 6th through November 30th.

Credit: Starry Night Education Software.
The November path of the radiant of the 2014 Leonids. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

The predicted ideal Zenithal Hourly Rate for 2014 stands at about 15, which is well above the typical background sporadic rate, but lower than most years. Expect the actual sky position of the radiant and light pollution to lower this hourly number significantly. And speaking of light pollution, the Moon is a 21% illuminated waning crescent on the morning of November 17th, rising at around 2:00 AM local in the adjacent constellation of Virgo.

The Leonids can, once every 33 years, produce a storm of magnificent proportions. The history of Leonid observation may even extend back as far as 902 A.D., which was recorded in Arab annals as the “Year of the Stars.”

But it was the morning of November 13th, 1833 that really gained notoriety for the Leonids, and really kicked the study of meteor showers into high gear.

A depiction of the 1868 Leonids by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot from The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings, 1881. Image in the Public Domain.

The night was clear over the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, and frightened townsfolk were awakened to moving shadows on bedroom walls. Fire was the first thing on most people’s minds, but they were instead confronted with a stunning and terrifying sight: a sky seeming to rain stars in every direction. Churches quickly filled up, as folks reckoned the Day of Judgment had come.  The 1833 Leonid storm actually made later historical lists as one of the 100 great events in the United States for the 19th century. The storm has also been cited as single-handedly contributing to the religious fundamentalist revivals of the 1830s. Poet Walt Whitman witnessed the 1833 storm, and the song The Stars Fell on Alabama by Frank Perkins was inspired by the event as well.

Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain.
Live in Alabama? Then you may well possess a license plate that commemorates the 1833 Leonid Storm. Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain.

But not all were fearful. Astronomer Denison Olmsted was inspired to study the radiants and paths of meteor streams after the 1833 storm, and founded modern meteor science. The Leonids continued to produce storms at 33 year intervals, and there are still many observers that recall the spectacle that the Leonids produced over the southwestern U.S. back 1966, with a zenithal hourly rate topping an estimated 144,000 per hour!

We also have a personal fondness for this shower, as we were fortunate enough to witness the Leonids from the dark desert skies of Kuwait back in 1998. We estimated the shower approached a ZHR of about 900 towards sunrise, as a fireballs seemed to light up the desert once every few seconds.

Created using Stellarium.
The situation at 22:00 UT on November 17th, noting the direction of the Earth’s motion with relation to the predicted peak of the 2014 Leonid stream. Created using Stellarium.

The Leonids have subsided in recent years, and have fallen back below enhanced rates since 2002. Here’s the most recent ZHR levels as per the International Meteor Organization:

2009: ZHR=80.

2010: ZHR=32.

2011: ZHR=22.

2012: ZHR=48.

Note: 2013 the shower was, for the most part, washed out by the Full Moon.

But this year is also special for another reason.

Note that the 2014-2015 season marks the approximate halfway mark to an expected Leonid outburst around 2032. Comet 55P Tempel-Tuttle reaches perihelion on May 20th, 2031, and if activity in the late 1990s was any indication, we expect the Leonids to start picking up again around 2030 onward.

A simulated storm on the morning of November 17th, 2032. Credit: Stellarium.
A simulated Leonid storm on the morning of November 17th, 2032. Credit: Stellarium.

Observing meteors is as simple as laying back and looking up. Be sure to stay warm, and trace the trail of any suspect meteor back to the Sickle to identify it as a Leonid. The Leonid meteors have one of the fastest approach velocities of any meteor stream at 71 kilometres per second, making for quick, fleeting passages in the pre-dawn sky. Brighter bolides may leave lingering smoke trails, and we like to keep a set of binoculars handy to examine these on occasion.

Looking to do some real science? You can document how many meteors you see per hour from your location and send this in to the International Meteor Organization, which tabulates and uses these volunteer counts to characterize a given meteor stream.

Leonids Credit: NASA
The 1997 Leonids as seen from space by the MSX satellite. Credit: NASA/JPL

And taking images of Leonid meteors is as simple as setting your DSLR camera on a tripod and taking long exposure images of the night sky. Be sure to use the widest field of view possible, and aim the camera about 45 degrees away from the radiant to nab meteors in profile. We generally shoot 30 second to 3 minute exposures in series, and don’t be afraid to experiment with manual F-stop/ISO combinations to get the settings just right for the local sky conditions. And be sure to carefully review those shots on the “big screen” afterwards… nearly every meteor we’ve caught in an image has turned up this way.

Don’t miss the 2014 Leonids. Hey, we’re half way to the start of the 2030 “storm years!”

Mercury Pierces the Zodiacal Light at Dawn this Weekend

Psst! Ever spy the planet Mercury? The most bashful of all the naked eye planets makes its best dawn appearance of 2014 this weekend for northern hemisphere observers. And not only will Mercury be worth getting up for, but you’ll also stand a chance at nabbing that most elusive of astronomical phenomena — the zodiacal light — from a good dark sky sight.

DST note: This post was written whilst we we’re visiting Arizona, a land that, we’re happy to report, does not for the most part observe the archaic practice of Daylight Saving Time. Life goes on, zombies do not arise, and trains still run on time. In the surrounding world of North America, however, don’t forget to “fall back” one hour on Sunday morning, November 2nd. I know, I know. Trust me, we didn’t design the wacky system we’re stuck with today. All times noted below post-shift reflect this change, but it also means that you’ll have to awaken an hour earlier Sunday November 2nd onwards to begin your astronomical vigil for Mercury!

Oct21 to Nov14. Created using Starry Night Education Software.
The apparent daily path of Mercury as seen from 30 degrees north from October 21st to November 14th. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

Mercury starts the month of November reaching greatest elongation on Saturday, November 1st at 18.7 degrees west of the Sun at 13:00 Universal Time UT/09:00 EDT. Look for Mercury about 10 degrees above the eastern horizon 40 minutes before sunrise. The planet Jupiter and the stars Denebola and Regulus make good morning guideposts to trace the line of the ecliptic down to the horizon to find -0.3 magnitude Mercury.

Mars, Mercury and the International Space Station.
Mars, Mercury and the International Space Station caught during an evening apparition in 2013. (Photo by author)

Sweeping along the horizon with binoculars, you may just be able to spy +0.2 magnitude Arcturus at a similar elevation to the northwest. The +1st magnitude star Spica also sits to Mercury’s lower right. Mercury passes 4.2 degrees north of Spica on November 4th while both are still about 18 degrees from the Sun, making for a good study in contrast.

Later in the month, the old waning crescent Moon will present a challenge as it passes 2.1 degrees north of Mercury on November 21st, though both will only be 9 degrees from the Sun on this date.

Mercury also passes 1.6 degrees south of Saturn November 26th, but both are only 7 degrees from the Sun and unobservable at this point. But don’t despair, as you can always watch all of the planetary conjunction action via SOHO’s sunward staring LASCO C3 camera, which has a generous 15 degree field of view.

Mercury (the bright ‘star’ with spikes) transits SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera. Credit: NASA/ESA/SOHO.

At the eyepiece, Mercury starts off the month of November as a 57% illuminated gibbous disk about 7” in diameter. This will change to a 92% illuminated disk 5″ across on November 15th, as the planet races towards superior conjunction on the far side of the Sun on December 8th. As with Venus, Mercury always emerges in the dawn sky as a crescent headed towards full phase, and the cycle reverses for both planets when they emerge in the dusk sky.

Why aren’t all appearances of Mercury the same? Mercury orbits the Sun once every 88 days, making greatest elongations of Mercury far from uncommon: on average, we get three dawn and three dusk apparitions of the innermost world per year, with a maximum of seven total possible. Two main factors come into play to assure that not all appearances of Mercury are created equal.

Credit: NASA
A depiction of the evening motion of Mercury and Venus as seen from Earth. Credit: NASA.

One is the angle of the ecliptic, which is the imaginary plane of our solar system that planets roughly follow traced out by the Earth’s orbit. In northern hemisphere Fall, this angle is at its closest to perpendicular at dawn, and the dusk angle is most favorable in the Spring. In the southern hemisphere, the situation is reversed. This serves to place Mercury as high as possible out of the atmospheric murk during favorable times, and shove it down into near invisibility during others.

The second factor is Mercury’s orbit. Mercury has the most elliptical orbit of any planet in our solar system at a value of 20.5% (0.205), with an aphelion of 69.8 million kilometres and perihelion 46 million kilometres from the Sun. This plays a more complicated role, as an elongation near perihelion only sees the planet venture 18.0 degrees from the Sun, while aphelion can see the planet range up to 27.8 degrees away. However, this distance variation also leads to noticeable changes in brightness that works to the advantage of Mercury spotters in the opposite direction. Mercury shines as bright as magnitude -0.3 at closer apparitions, to a full magnitude fainter at more distant ones at +0.7.

In the case of this weekend, greatest elongation for Mercury occurs just a week after perihelion, which transpired on October 25th.

earlier 2014 Curiousity
Mercury transits the Sun earlier this year as captured by the Curiosity rover on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Mercury is also worth keeping an eye on in coming years, as it will also transit the Sun for the first time since 2006 on May 9th, 2016. This will be visible for Europe and North America. We always thought it a bit strange that while rarer transits of Venus have yet to make their sci-fi theatrical debut, a transit of Mercury does crop up in the film Sunshine.

The first week of November is also a fine time to try and spy the zodiacal light. This is a cone-shaped glow following the plane of the ecliptic, resulting from sunlight backscattered across a dispersed layer of interplanetary dust. The zodiacal light was a common sight for us from the dark skies of Arizona, often rivaling the distant glow of Tucson over the mountains. The zodiacal light vanished from our view after moving to the humid and often light polluted U.S. East Coast, though we’re happy to report that we can once again spy it as we continue to traverse the U.S. southwest this Fall.

The zodiacal light captured by Cory Schmitz over the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa.
The zodiacal light captured by Cory Schmitz over the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa. (Used with permission). 

None other than rock legend Brian May of Queen fame wrote his PhD dissertation on the zodiacal light and the distribution and relative velocity of dust particles along the plane of the solar system. Having a dark site and a clear flat horizon is key to nabbing this bonus to your quest to cross Mercury off your life list this weekend!

Comet K1 PanSTARRS: See It Now Before it Heads South

Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS, one of the most dependable comets of 2014, may put on its encore performance over the coming weeks for southern hemisphere observers.

First, the story thus far. Discovered as a +19th magnitude smudge along the borders of the constellations Ophiuchus and Hercules in mid-May 2012 courtesy of the Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System (PanSTARRS) based atop Haleakala on the Hawaiian island of Maui, astronomers soon realized that comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS would be something special.

The comet broke +10th magnitude to become a visible binocular object in early 2014, and wowed northern hemisphere observers as it vaulted across the constellations of Boötes and Ursa Major this past spring.

NASA’s NEOWISE mission spies K1 PanSTARRS on May 20th as it slides by the galaxy NGC 3726 (blue). Credit: NASA/JPL.

The comet is approaching the inner solar system on a retrograde, highly-inclined orbit tilted 142 degrees relative the ecliptic. This bizarre orbit also assures that the comet will actually reach opposition twice in 2014 as seen from our earthly vantage point: once on April 15th, and another opposition coming right up on November 7th.

As was the case with comet Hale-Bopp way back in 1997, had C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS arrived six months earlier or later, we would’ve been in for a truly spectacular show, as the comet reached perihelion on August 27th, 2014, only 0.05 A.U.s (4.6 million miles or 7.7 million kilometres) outside the orbit of the Earth! But such a spectacle was not to be… back in ’97, Hale-Bopp’s enormous size — featuring a nucleus estimated 40 to 60 kilometres across — made for a grand show regardless… fast forward to 2014, and the tinier nucleus of K1 PanSTARRS has been relegated to binocular status only.

The position of comet K1 PanSTARRS as it passes its second opposition of the year. Credit: NASA/JPL.

From here on out, K1 PanSTARRS is headed south “with a bullet” and into memory for most northern hemisphere observers. We spied the comet this morning low to the south near +3rd magnitude Nu Puppis in the pre-dawn sky with our trusty 15×45 binocs from Yuma, Arizona, for what will probably be our last time. This also means that the time to catch a last glimpse of K1 PanSTARRS for northern hemisphere viewers is now. This week sees the comet transiting just 20 degrees above the southern horizon at 3:00 to 4:00 AM local for observers based from latitude 30 degrees north as it crosses the constellation Puppis. The bright star Sirius nearly shares the same position as the comet in right ascension this week, and K1 PanSTARRS sits about 24 degrees south of the Dog Star.

K1 PanSTARRS jaicoa
Comet K1 PanSTARRS imaged on June 14th. Credit: Efrain Morales.

Halloween sees the comet even lower, crossing the southern meridian at only 13 degrees elevation as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Draw a straight line from Sirius to the south celestial pole around this date to find the comet just 5 degrees to the north of Canopus.

But the show is just beginning for southern hemisphere residents. Observing from the town of Bright Australia, Robert Kaufmann recently noted in a posting on the Yahoo Groups Comet Observer’s message board that the comet currently exhibits a 4’ wide coma shining at about magnitude +7.3 with an elevation of 28 degrees above the horizon on October 25th.

And if the comet holds steady in brightness, it may break the visual threshold and become a naked eye object as seen from a dark sky site in early November.

Light curve
The projected light curve of K1 PanSTARRS with brightness observations (black dots). The vertical pink line marks the comet’s perihelion passage in late August. Credit: Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Information on Bright Comets.

The comet will be literally “hauling tail” across the constellation Dorado as it nears its second opposition of the year on November 7th, moving about 1.5 degrees a day – 3 times the apparent diameter of the Full Moon – on closest approach.

Currently, the comet has been observed to have an estimated magnitude holding steady at+7 and is predicted to peak at perhaps magnitude +6 early next month. And while it would’ve been great had it arrived 6 months earlier or later, the aforementioned high retrograde inclination of its orbit assured that K1 PanSTARRS was a top performer for both hemispheres in 2014.

Perihelion passage occurred two months ago, but to paraphrase a famous Monty Python skit, Comet K1 PanSTARRS is “not dead yet.”  Here are some key observing dates coming right up as the comet gains prominence in the southern hemisphere sky:

(Note that close passages of less than one degree near stars +4th magnitude or brighter only are mentioned).

Oct 31st: Passes closest to Earth, at 0.953 A.U.s distant.

Nov 1st: Crosses into the constellation Pictor.

Nov 2nd: Passes near the +3.8 magnitude star Beta Pictoris.

Nov 6th: Crosses into the constellation Dorado.

Nov 6th: Full Moon occurs, marking the beginning of an unfavorable week for comet hunting.

Nov 7th: The second opposition of the comet for 2014 occurs at 3:00 UT.

Nov 8th: Passes near the +3.3 magnitude star Alpha Doradus.

Nov 11th: Crosses into the constellation Reticulum.

Nov 13th: Crosses into the constellation Horologium.

Nov 14th: Passes 34 degrees from the South Celestial Pole.

Nov 20th: Crosses into the constellation Eridanus.

Nov 22nd: New Moon occurs, marking a week long span optimal for comet-hunting.

Nov 25th: Crosses into the constellation Phoenix.

Starry Night Education Software.
The path of K1 PanSTARRS from October 27th through December 1st. Created by the author using Starry Night Education Software.

Dec 6th: Full Moon occurs.

Dec 12th: Passes near the +2.8 magnitude star Alpha Phoenicis (Ankaa).

Dec 18th: Crosses into the constellation Sculptor.

Dec 22nd: New Moon occurs.

Looking at 2015, K1 PanSTARRS will probably fall back below +10th magnitude by late January. The comet will then head back out into the depths of the outer solar system, its multi-million year orbit only slightly altered by its inner solar system passage down into the ~700,000 year range. What will Earth be like on that far off date? Will human eyes greet the comet once again, and will anyone remember its appearance way back in the mists of time in 2014? All thoughts to ponder as we bid fair well to Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS, a fine binocular comet indeed.