Watch the Moon Occult Aldebaran This Weekend

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How about that perigee Full Moon this past weekend? Thus begins ‘Supermoon season’ for 2015, as this month’s Full Moon occurs even closer to perigee — less than an hour apart, in fact — on September 28th, with the final total lunar eclipse of the ongoing tetrad to boot. Keep an eye on Luna this week, as it crosses into the early AM sky for several key dates with destiny just prior to the start of the second and final eclipse season for 2015.

The big event later this week is a passage of the waning gibbous Moon through the Hyades open cluster on the morning of Saturday, September 5th, climaxing with a dramatic occultation of the bright star Aldebaran on the same morning. This is part of a series of 49 ongoing occultations of Aldebaran by the Moon, one for each lunation extending out to September 2018.

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The visibility footprint for the September 5th occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon. Image credit: Occult 4.1

This weekend’s event will occur at moonrise under nighttime skies for the northeastern United States and the Canadian Maritimes, and near dawn and under daytime skies for observers in Western Europe and Northern Africa eastward. We observed an occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon under daytime skies from Alaska back in the late 1990s, and can attest that the star is indeed visible near the limb of the Moon in binoculars. A good deep blue sky is key to spotting +1 magnitude Aldebaran in the daytime.

London 711 AM
The view from London UK at 7:11 AM local. Image Credit: Starry Night Education software

During waning phase, the bright edge of the Moon is always leading, meaning Aldebaran will ingress (wink out) on the bright limb of the 52% illuminated Moon, and egress (reappear) along its dark limb.

Here are some key times for ingress/egress by location (all times quoted are local and incorporate daylight saving/summer time):

Washington D.C.

Moonrise: 11:53 PM

Ingress: N/A (before Moonrise)

Egress: 12:38 AM (altitude = 8 degrees)


Moonrise: 11:22 PM

Ingress 11:57 PM (altitude = 6 degrees)

Egress: 12:41 AM (altitude = 14 degrees)

Gander, Newfoundland

Moonrise: 11:26 PM

Ingress: 1:37 AM (altitude = 20 degrees)

Egress: 2:26 AM (altitude = 28 degrees)


Moonrise: 11:04 PM

Ingress: 5:50 AM (altitude = 53 degrees)

Sunrise: 6:18 AM

Egress: 7:07 AM (altitude = 54 degrees)


Moonrise: 12:02 AM

Ingress: 6:53 AM (altitude = 56 degrees)

Sunrise: 7:12 AM

Egress: 8:10 AM (altitude = 57 degrees)

Occultations of bright stars by the Moon are one of the few times besides a solar or lunar eclipse when you can actually discern the one degree per every two and half hours orbital motion of the Moon in real time. The Moon moves just a little more than its own apparent diameter as seen from the Earth every hour. This also sets us up for four more fine occultations of Aldebaran by the Moon alternating between Europe and North America on October 2nd, October 29th, November 26th, and December 23rd.

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The final four occultations of Aldebaran by the Moon for 2015.  Image credit: Occult 4.1

The bright stars Antares, Spica and Regulus also lie along the path of the Moon, which is inclined about five degrees relative to the ecliptic. A series of occultations of Regulus by the Moon begins in late 2016.

Fun fact: The Moon used to occult the bright star Pollux in the constellation Gemini until about 2100 years ago in 117 BC. The 26,000 year cycle known as the Precession of the Equinoxes has since carried the star out of the Moon’s path.

Observations of occultations — especially dramatic grazes spied right from the edge of the path — can be used to construct a profile of the lunar limb. A step-wise ‘wink out’ of a star during an occultation can also betray the existence of a close binary.

Recording an occultation of a star by the Moon is as easy as running video while shooting the Moon. The dark limb egress of Aldebaran will be much easier to record during the September 5th event than the ingress of the star against the bright limb. I typically run video with a DLSR directly coupled to a Celestron 8” SCT telescope, with WWV radio running in the background for a precise audio timing of the event. Remember, the Moon will also be transiting the Hyades star cluster as well, covering and uncovering many fainter stars for observers worldwide around the same time frame.

Sept 5 5UT
The Last Quarter Moon versus Aldebaran and the Hyades on September 5th at ~5:00 UT. Image credit: Stellarium

Now for the ‘wow’ factor. The Moon is about 240,000 miles (400,000 km), or 1 1/4 light seconds distant. Aldebaran is 65 light years away, and said light left the star around 1950, only to have its light ‘rejected’ during the very last second by the craggy mountains along the lunar limb. And though Aldebaran appears to be a member of the Hyades, it isn’t, as the open cluster sits 153 light years from Earth.

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The Moon crosses through the Hyades in January 2015. Image credit and copyright: Nell Ghosh

And watch that Moon, as it then heads for a partial solar eclipse as seen from South Africa and the southern Indian Ocean on September 13th, and a total lunar eclipse visible from North America and Europe on September 28th.

Expect more to come, with complete guides to both on Universe Today!

A Challenging Series of Occultations of Spica by the Moon Coming to a Sky Near You

An occultation of the star Mu Geminorum (to the upper right off the dark limb of the Moon) Photo by author.

The first in a cycle of challenging occultations of the bright star Spica for northern hemisphere observers begins this coming Monday on August 12th.

Watching a bright star or planet wink out on the dark limb of the Moon can be an amazing event to witness. It’s an abrupt “now you see it, now you don’t” event in a universe which often seems to move at an otherwise glacial pace. And if the event grazes the limb of the Moon, an observer may see a series of winks as the starlight streams through the lunar valleys.

Close companion stars have been discovered during occultations, and astronomers even used a series of occultations of radio source 3C 273 in 1962 to pin down the position of the first quasar.

An occultation occurs when one object passes in front of another as seen from the observer’s vantage point. The term has its hoary roots back in a time when astronomy was intertwined with its pseudoscience ancestor of astrology. Even today, I still get funny looks from non-astronomy friends when I use the term occultation, as if it just confirms their suspicions of the arcane arts that astronomers really practice in secret.

But back to reality-based science. At an apparent magnitude of +1.1, Spica is the 3rd brightest star that the Moon can occult along its five degree path above and below the plane of the ecliptic. It’s also one of only four stars brighter than +1.4 magnitude on the Moon’s path. The others are Antares (magnitude +1.0), Regulus (magnitude +1.4), and Aldebaran (magnitude +0.8). All of these are bright enough to be visible on the lunar limb through binoculars or a telescope in the daytime if conditions are favorable.

It’s interesting to note that this situation also changes over time due to the precession of the equinoxes. For example, the bright star Pollux was last occulted by the Moon in 117 BC, but cannot be covered by the Moon in our current epoch.

Spica is currently in the midst of a cycle of 21 occultations by our Moon. This cycle started in July 25th, 2012 and will end in January 2014.

Spica is a B1 III-IV type star 10 times the mass of the Sun. At 260 light years distant, Spica is one of the closest candidates to the Earth along with Betelgeuse to go supernova. Now, THAT would make for an interesting occultation! Both are safely out of the ~100 light year distant “kill zone”.

What follows are the circumstances for the next four occultations of Spica by the Moon. The times are given for closest geocentric conjunction of the two objects. Actual times of disappearance and reappearance will vary depending on the observer’s location. Links are provided for each event which include more info.

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Looking westward 30 minutes after sunset for North American viewers on the night of August 12th. (Created by the Author using Starry Night).

First up is the August 12th occultation of Spica, which favors Central Asia and the Asian Far East. This will occur late in the afternoon sky around 09:00 UT  and prior to sunset. The waxing crescent Moon will be six days past New phase. North American observers will see the Moon paired five degrees from Spica with Saturn to the upper left on the evening of August 12th.

The footprint for the September 8th occultation of Spica by the Moon. Note that the broken line indicates where the occultation will take place in the daytime sky. ( Credit: Occult

Next is the September 8th daytime occultation of Spica for Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa around ~15UT. This will be a challenge, as the Moon will be a waxing crescent at only 3 days past New. Observers in the Middle East will have the best shot at this event, as the occultation occurs at dusk and before moonset. Note that the Moon also occults Venus six hours later for Argentina and Chile.

Looking to the east the morning of November 2nd for North American observers. (Created by the author using Stellarium).

After taking a break in October (the occultation of October 5 occurs only 23 hours after New and is unobservable), the Moon again occults Spica on November 2nd for observers across Europe & Central Asia. This will be a difficult one, as the Moon will be only 20 hours from New and a hybrid solar eclipse that will cross the Atlantic and central Africa. It may be possible to lock on to the Moon and track it up into the daylight, just be sure to physically block the rising Sun behind a building or hill!

The occultation footprint of Spica by the Moon for November 29th, 2013.  (Reproduced from the Astronomical Almanac online and produced by the U.S. Naval Observatory and H.M. Nautical Almanac Office).

Finally, the Moon will occult Spica for North American observers on November 29th centered on 17:03 UT. This will place the event low in the nighttime sky for Alaskan observers. It’ll be a bit more of a challenge for Canadian and U.S. observers in the lower 48, as the Moon & Spica will be sandwiched between the Sun and the western horizon in the mid-day sky. As an added treat, comet C/2012 S1 ISON will reach perihelion on November 28th, just 20 hours prior and will be reaching peak brilliance very near the Sun.

And as an added bonus, the Moon will be occulting the +2.8 star Alpha Librae (Zubenelgenubi) on August 13th for central South America.

All of these events are challenges, to be sure. Viewers worldwide will still catch a close night time pairing of the Moon and Spica on each pass. We’ve watched the daytime Moon occult Aldebaran with binoculars while stationed in Alaska back in the late 1990’s, and can attest that such a feat of visual athletics is indeed possible.

And speaking of which, the next bright star due for a series of occultations by the Moon is Aldebaran starting in 2015. After 2014, Spica won’t be occulted by the Moon again until 2024.

But wait, there’s more- the total eclipse of the Moon occurring on April 15th 2014 occurs just 1.5 degrees from Spica, favoring North America. This is the next good lunar eclipse for North American observers, and one of the best “Moon-star-eclipse” conjunctions for this century. Hey, at least it’ll give U.S. observers something besides Tax Day to look forward to in mid-April. More to come in 2014!