Occultation Palooza: The Moon Covers Aldebaran and More

The Moon crosses the Hyades on July 29th, 2016. Image credit and copyright: Alan Dyer

This week, we thought we’d try an experiment for tonight’s occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon. As mentioned, we’re expanding the yearly guide for astronomical events for the year in 2017. We’ve done this guide in various iterations since 2009, starting on Astroguyz and then over to Universe Today, and it has grown from a simple Top 10 list, to a full scale preview of what’s on tap for the following year.

You, the reader, have made this guide grow over the years, as we incorporate feedback we’ve received.

Anyhow, we thought we’d lay out this week’s main astro-event in a fashion similar to what we have planned for the guide: each of the top 101 events will have a one page entry (two pages for the top 10 events) with a related graphic, fun facts, etc.

So in guide format, tonight’s occultation of Aldebaran would break down like this:

Wednesday, September 21st: The Moon Occults Aldebaran

The occultation footprint of tonight's Aldebaran event.
The occultation footprint of tonight’s Aldebaran event.

Image credit Occult 4.2

The 67% illuminated waning gibbous Moon occults the +0.9 magnitude star Aldebaran. The Moon is two days prior to Last Quarter phase during the event. Both are located 109 degrees west of the Sun at the time of the event. The central time of conjunction is 22:37 Universal Time (UT). The event occurs during the daylight hours over southeast Asia, China, Japan and the northern Philippines and under darkness for India, Pakistan and the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa. The Moon will next occult Aldebaran on October 19th. This is occultation 23 in the current series of 49 running from January 29th 2015 to September 3rd, 2018. This is one of the more central occultations of Aldebaran by the Moon for 2016.


The view from India tonight, just before the occultation begins. Image credit: Stellarium

Fun Fact-In the current century, (2001-2100 AD) the Moon occults Aldebaran 247 times, topped only by Antares (386 times) and barely beating out Spica (220 times).

Or maybe, another fun fact could be: A frequent setting for science fiction sagas, Aldebaran is now also often confused in popular culture with Alderaan, Princess Leia’s late homeworld from the Star Wars saga.

Like it? Thoughts, suggestions, complaints?

Now for the Wow! Factor for tonight’s occultation. Aldebaran is 65 light years distant, meaning the light we’re seeing left the star in 1951 before getting photobombed by the Moon just over one second before reaching the Earth.

There are also lots of other occultations of fainter stars worldwide over the next 24 hours, as the Moon crosses the Hyades.

And follow that Moon, as a series of 20 occultations of the bright star Regulus during every lunation begins later this year on December 18th.

Gadi Eidelheit managed to catch the March 14th, 2016 daytime occultation of Aldebaran from Israel:

And also in the ‘Moon passing in front of things’ department, here’s a noble attempt at capturing a difficult occultation of Neptune by the Moon last week on September 15th, courtesy of Veijo Timonen based in Hämeenlinna Finland:

Lets see, that’s a +8th magnitude planet next to a brilliant -13th magnitude Moon, one million (15 magnitudes) times brighter… it’s amazing you can see Neptune at all!

Last item: tomorrow marks the September (southward) equinox, ushering in the start of astronomical fall in the northern hemisphere, and the beginning of Spring in the southern. The precise minute of equinoctial crossing is 14:21 UT. In the 21st century, the September equinox can fall anywhere from September 21st to September 23rd. Bob King has a great recent write-up on the equinox and the Moon.

Here's EVERY occultation of Aldebaran from 2015 through 2018. (Click to enlarge) Credit: Occult 4.2.
Here’s EVERY occultation of Aldebaran from 2015 through 2018. (Click to enlarge) Credit: Occult 4.2.

Don’t miss tonight’s passage of Aldebaran through the Hyades, and there’s lots more where that came from headed into 2017!

Saturn Disappears Behind the Full Flower Moon May 14 – Watch it Live

Simulation of the moon closing in on Saturn just prior to occultation. Credit: Gianluca Masi using SkyX software

Funny thing. Skywatchers are often  just as excited to watch a celestial object disappear as we are to see it make an appearance. Early Wednesday morning (May 14) the Full Flower Moon will slip in front of  Saturn, covering it from view for about an hour for observers in Australia and New Zealand. If you don’t live where the dingoes roam, no worries. You can watch it online.And no matter where you are on the planet, the big moon will accompany the ringed planet across the sky this Tues. night-Weds. morning.

Moon-Saturn occultation from Perth, Australia Feb. 22, 2014 captured by Colin Legg

Occultations of stars happen swiftly. The moon’s limb meets the pinpoint star and bam! it’s gone in a flash. But Saturn is an extended object and the moon needs time to cover one end of the rings to the other. Planetary occultations afford the opportunity to remove yourself from planet Earth and watch a planet ‘set’ and ‘rise’ over the alien lunar landscape. Like seeing a Chesley Bonestell painting in the flesh.

Saturn and the moon tomorrow night just before midnight as viewed from the Midwestern U.S. View faces south-southeast. Stellarium
Saturn and the moon Tuesday night (May 13) just before midnight as viewed from the U.S. Stellarium

As the moon approaches Saturn, the planet first touches the lunar limb and then appears to ‘set’ as it’s covered by degrees. About an hour later, the planet ‘rises’ from the opposite limb. Planetary occultations are infrequent and always worth the effort to see.

Seen from the northern hemisphere and equatorial regions, the nearly full moon will appear several degrees to the right or west of Saturn tomorrow night (May 13). As the night deepens and the moon rolls westward, the two grow closer and closer. They’ll be only a degree apart (two full moon diameters) during Wednesday morning twilight seen from the West Coast. Northern hemisphere viewers will notice that the moon slides to the south of the planet overnight.

Map showing the region where the occultation of Saturn will be visible. Click to get the times of Saturn's disappearance and reappearance for individual cities. Times are given in UT or Universal Time. Add 9.5 hours for Australian Central Standard Time. Credit: IOTA
Map showing the region where the occultation of Saturn will be visible. Click to get times of Saturn’s disappearance and reappearance for individual cities. Times shown are UT or Universal Time. Add 9.5 hours for Australian Central Standard Time. Credit: IOTA

Skywatchers in Australia will see the moon cover Saturn during convenient early evening viewing hours May 14:

* 8:09  p.m. local time from Adelaide

* 9:05 p.m.  Brisbane

* 8:50 p.m.  Melbourne

* 8:53 p.m. Canberra

* 8:56 p.m. from Sydney (More times and a map – click HERE)

Before the occultation, Saturn will shine close to the moon’s upper right and might be tricky to see with the naked eye because of glare.

Binoculars will easily reveal the planet, but a telescope is the instrument of choice. Even a small scope magnifying at least 30x will show Saturn and its rings hovering above the bright edge of the moon. Stick around. About an hour later, Saturn will re-emerge along the moon’s lower left limb.

Saturn and its moons Tuesday night May 13 around 10 p.m. CDT. Titan's the brightest and easiest. Iapetus ranges from magnitude +10 when it's west of Saturn and we see its bright hemisphere to magnitude +12 when it's west of the planet as it will be this week. Created with Meridian software
Saturn and its moons Tuesday night May 13 around 10 p.m. CDT. Titan’s the brightest and easiest moon to see at magnitude +8.5. Iapetus ranges from magnitude +10 when it’s west of Saturn and we see its bright hemisphere to magnitude +12 when it’s east of the planet. Created with Meridian software

Meanwhile, back in the western hemisphere, we’ll watch the nearly full Flower Moon make a close pass of the planet. If you’ve had difficulty finding the celestial ring bearer, you’ll have no problem Tuesday night. Take a look at Saturn’s wonderful system of rings in your telescope – they’re tipped nearly wide open this year. For even more fun, see how many moons you can spot. And don’t forget, you can watch it online courtesy of astrophysicist Gianluca Masi. His Virtual Telescope website will broadcast the occultation live starting at 10:15 Universal Time May 14 (6:15 a.m. EDT, 5:15 CDT, 4:15 MDT and 3:15 PDT).