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.

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!

A Fine Pair of Lunar Occultations for North America This Weekend

Heads up, North American residents: our Moon is about to blot out two naked eye stars on Friday and Saturday night.

Such an event is known as an occultation, an astronomical term that has its hoary roots in astronomy’s pseudoscience ancestor of astrology. An occultation is simply when one astronomical body passes in front of another from our line of sight. There’s nothing quite like watching a star disappear on the dark limb of the Moon. In a universe where events often transpire over periods of time longer than a human life span, occultations are abrupt affairs to witness.

Close double stars have also been teased out of occultation data, winking out in a quick, step-wise fashion. If an occultation such as the two this weekend occurs while the Moon is waxing towards Full, we get the added advantage of watching the action on the leading dark limb of the Moon during convenient early evening hours.

Beta Capricorni on the dark limb of the Moon Saturday night. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
Beta Capricorni on the dark limb of the Moon Saturday night. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

First up is the occultation of the +3.9th magnitude star Rho Sagittarii on Friday night, October 11th. Central conjunction for this occultation occurs at 00:40 Universal Time (UT) early on the morning of the 12th. The Moon will be at a 51% illuminated waxing gibbous phase, having passed First Quarter just prior to the start of the occultation at 7:02 PM EDT/23:02 UT on the 11th. The sunset terminator line at the start of the occultation will bisect the central U.S., and observers east of the Mississippi will get to witness the entire event. The southern graze line will cross Cuba and Guatemala. Note that the Moon will also pass its most southern declination for this lunation just two days prior on October 9th at 23:00 UT/7:00 PM EDT, at a declination of -19.6 degrees.  This is one of the Moon’s most southern journeys for 2013, meaning that it will still ride fairly far to the south in the sky during this weekend’s occultations.

The occultation of Rho Saggitarii by the Moon for the night of October 11th. (rendered using Occult 4.1.02 software).
The occultation of Rho Sagittarii by the Moon for the night of October 11th. the dashed line indicates where the occultation will occur in the daytime; east of this region, the occultation occurs after sunset. (rendered using Occult 4.1.02 software).

Rho Sagittarii is an F-type star 122 light years distant. Stick around until February 23rd, 2046, and you’ll get to see an even rarer treat, when the planet Venus occults the very same star. Just south of the Rho Sagittarii pair lies the region from which the Wow! Signal was detected in 1977.

The Moon moves at an average speed of just over a kilometre a second in its orbit about the Earth, and traverses roughly the apparent distance of its angular size of 30’ in one hour. The duration of occultations as seen from their center line take about an hour from ingress to egress, though its much tougher to watch a star reappear on the bright limb of the Moon!

And the night of Saturday, October 12th finds the 62% illuminated waxing gibbous Moon occulting an even brighter star across roughly the same region. The star is +3.1 magnitude Beta Capricorni, which also goes by the Arabic name of Dabih, meaning “the butcher.”  Dabih is also an interesting double star with a +6th magnitude component 3.5’ away from the +3rd magnitude primary. Dabih is an easy split with binoculars, and it will be fun to watch the two components pass behind the Moon Saturday night. This occultation also occurs the night of October 12th which is traditionally Fall Astronomy Day. If you’re hosting a star party this coming Saturday night, be sure to catch the well-timed occultation of Beta Capricorni! The central conjunction for this event occurs at 01:27 UT on the morning of the 13th, and North American observers east of the Rockies will get to see the entire event.

(Rendered using Occult software).
The occultation footprint of Beta Capricorni for the night of October 12th. (Rendered using Occult software).

Beta Capricorni is 328 light years distant, putting the physical separation of the B component at about a third of a light year away from the primary star at 21,000 astronomical units distant. “Beta B” thus takes about 700,000 years to orbit its primary! It’s also amazing to think that those fusion-born photons took over three centuries to get here, only to be rudely “interrupted” by the bulk of our Moon in the very last second of their journey.

And be sure to keep an eye on the primary star as it winks out, as it’s a known spectroscopic triple star with unseen companions in respective 9 and 1374 day orbits. Dabih may just appear to “hang” on the jagged lunar limb as those close companions wink out in a step-wise fashion.

Both occultations are bright enough to watch with the naked eye, although a standard set of 10x 50 binoculars will provide a fine view. The ingress of an occultation is also an excellent event to catch on video, and if you’ve got WWV radio running audio in the background, you can catch the precise time that the star disappears from your locale.

Note: WWV radio is still indeed broadcasting through the ongoing U.S. government shutdown, though they’re operated by NOAA & the NIST.

The International Occultation and Timing Association is always interested in reports of occultations carried out by amateur astronomers. Not only can this reveal or refine knowledge of close double stars, but a series of occultation observations from precisely known locations can map the profile of the lunar limb.

Be sure to catch both events this U.S. Columbus Day/Canadian Thanksgiving Day weekend, and send those pics in to Universe Today!

Precise timings for the ingress and egress of each lunar occultations for major North American cities can be found at the following pages:

– Rho Sagittarii

– Beta Capricorni