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”

A Triple Occultation Bonanza: A Challenging Series of Occultations This Weekend and More

Got clear skies? This week’s equinox means the return of astronomical Fall for northern hemisphere observers and a slow but steady return of longer nights afterwards. And as the Moon returns to the evening skies, all eyes turn to the astronomical action transpiring low to the southwest at dusk.

Three planets and two “occasional” planets lie along the Moon’s apparent path this coming weekend: Mars, Saturn, Mercury and the tiny worldlets of 4 Vesta and 1 Ceres. Discovered in the early 19th century, Ceres and Vesta enjoyed planetary status initially before being relegated to the realm of the asteroids, only to make a brief comeback in 2006 before once again being purged along with Pluto to dwarf planet status.

Credit: Stellarium.
The Moon approaches Saturn on the evening of September 28th as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Credit: Stellarium.

On Sunday September 28th, the four day old Moon will actually occult (pass in front of) Saturn, Ceres, and Vesta in quick succession. The Saturn occultation is part of a series of 12 in an ongoing cycle. This particular occultation is best for Hawaiian-based observers on the evening of September 28th. Astute observers will recall that Ceres and Vesta fit in the same 15’ field of view earlier this summer. Both are now over six degrees apart and slowly widening. Unfortunately, there is no location worldwide where it’s possible to see all (or two) of these objects occulted simultaneously. The best spots for catching the occultations of +7.8 magnitude Vesta and +9.0 magnitude Ceres are from the Horn of Africa and just off of the Chilean coast of South America, respectively. The rest of us will see a close but photogenic conjunction of the trio and the Moon. To our knowledge, an occultation of Ceres or Vesta by the dark limb of the Moon has yet to be recorded. Vesta also reaches perihelion this week on September 23rd at 4:00 UT, about 2.2 astronomical units from the Sun and 2.6 A.U.s from Earth.

Credit: Andrew Symes
4 Vesta and 1 Ceres share the same field of view this past summer. Credit: Andrew Symes @FailedProtostar.

The reappearance of the Moon in the evening skies is also a great time to try your hand (or eyes) at the fine visual athletic sport of waxing crescent moon-spotting. The Moon passes New phase marking the start of lunation 1135 on Wednesday, September 24th at 6:12 UT/2:12 AM EDT. First sighting opportunities will occur over the South Pacific on the same evening, with worldwide opportunities to spy the razor-thin Moon low to the west the following night. Aim your binoculars at the Moon and sweep about three degrees to the south, and you’ll spy Mercury and the bright star Spica just over a degree apart.

This week’s New Moon is also notable for marking the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, and the beginning of the Jewish year 5775 A.M. at sundown on Wednesday. The Jewish calendar is a hybrid luni-solar one, and inserted an embolismic or intercalculary month earlier this spring to stay in sync with the solar year.

Occult 4.0
The occultation footprint of Saturn. The dashed line denotes where the event occurs in the daytime, while the solid line marks where it can be seen after sunset. Created using Occult 4.1.0.

The Moon also visits Mars and Antares on September 29th. The ruddy pair sits just three degrees apart on the 28th, making an interesting study in contrast. Which one looks “redder” to you? Antares was actually named by the Greeks to refer to it as the “equal to,” “pseudo,” or “anti-Mars…” Mars can take on anything from a yellowish to pumpkin orange appearance, depending on the current amount of dust suspended in its atmosphere. The action around Mars is also heating up, as NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft just arrived in orbit around the Red Planet and India’s Mars Orbiter is set to join it this week… and all as Comet A1 Siding Spring makes a close pass on October 19th!

And speaking of spacecraft, another news maker is photo-bombing the dusk scene, although of course it’s much too faint to see. NASA’s Dawn mission is en route to enter orbit around Ceres in early 2015, and currently lies near R.A. 15h 02’ and declination -14 37’, just over a degree from Ceres as seen from Earth. The Moon will briefly “occult” the Dawn spacecraft as well on September 28th.

Credit: Starry Night
Crowded skies: the Moon approaching Saturn, 4 Vesta, 1 Ceres and the Dawn spacecraft on the 28th. The red arrow shows the direction of the Moon. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

Be sure to keep an eye out for Earthshine on the dark limb of the Moon as our natural neighbor in space waxes from crescent to First Quarter. What you’re seeing is the reflection of sunlight from the gibbous Earth illuminating the lunar plains on the nighttime side of the Moon. This effect gives the Moon a dramatic 3D appearance and can vary depending on the amount of cloud and snow cover currently facing the Moon.

Such a close trio of conjunctions raises the question: when was the last time the Moon covered two or more planets at once? Well, on April 23rd 1998, the Moon actually occulted Venus and Jupiter at the same time, although you had to journey to Ascension Island to witness it!

Credit: Stellarium
The waning crescent Moon approaches Jupiter and Venus on April 23rd, 1998. Credit: Stellarium.

Such bizarre conjunctions are extremely rare. You need a close pairing of less than half a degree for two bright objects to be covered by the Moon at the same time. And often, such conjunctions occur too close to the Sun for observation. A great consequence of such passages, however, is that it can result in a “smiley-face” conjunction, such as the one that occurs on October 15th, 2036:

Credit: Starry Night.
Smile: A close pass of the Moon, Saturn, and Regulus in 2036. Credit: Stellarium.

Such an occurrence lends credence to a certain sense of cosmic irony in the universe.

And be sure to keep an eye on the Moon, as eclipse season 2 of 2 for 2014 kicks off next week, with the second total lunar eclipse of the year visible from North America.

More to come!

Jupiter and the Moon Have a Close Encounter in the Sky February 18, 2013

The movement of the Moon makes a fascinating study of celestial mechanics. Despite the light pollution it brings to the nighttime sky, we’re fortunate as a species to have a large solitary satellite to give us lessons in “Celestial Mechanics 101″

This weekend, we’ll get to follow that motion as the Moon crosses into the constellation Taurus for a near-pass of the planet Jupiter, and for a very few citizens of our fair world, occults it.

The Moon versus Jupiter during the previous occultation of the planet last month. (Image courtesy of Luis Argerich at Nightscape Photography; used with permission).
The Moon versus Jupiter during the previous occultation of the planet last month. (Image courtesy of Luis Argerich at Nightscape Photography; used with permission).

In astronomy, the term “occultation” simply means that one astronomical body passes in front of another. The term has its hoary roots in astronomy’s ancient past; just like the modern day science of chemistry sprung from the pseudo-science of alchemy, astronomy was once intertwined with the arcane practice of astrology, although the two have long since parted ways. When I use the term “occultation” around my non-space geek friends, (I do have a few!) I never fail to get a funny look, as if I just confirmed every wacky suspicion that they ever had about us backyard astronomers…

But those of us who follow lunar occultations never miss a chance to observe one. You’ll actually get to see the motion of the Moon as it moves against the background planet or star, covering it up abruptly. The Moon actually moves about 12° degrees across the sky per 24 hour period.

The position of the Moon & Jupiter as seen from Tampa (Feb 18th, 7PM EST), Perth, (Feb 18th 11:30UT) & London  (Feb 18th at 19UT). Created by the author using Stellarium.
The position of the Moon & Jupiter as seen from Tampa (Feb 18th, 7PM EST), Perth, (Feb 18th 11:30UT) & London (Feb 18th at 19UT). Created by the author using Stellarium.

On the evening of Monday, February 18th, the 56% illuminated waxing gibbous Moon will occult Jupiter for Tasmania and southern Australia around 12:00 Universal Time (UT). Folks along the same longitude as Australia (i.e., eastern Asia) will see a close pass of the pair. For North America, we’ll see the Moon approach Jupiter and Aldebaran of February 17th (the night of the Virtual Star Party) and the Moon appear past the pair after dusk on the 18th.

Orientation of Jupiter, the Moon & Vesta on the evening of February 18th for North America. (Created by the author in Starry Night).
Orientation of Jupiter, the Moon & Vesta on the evening of February 18th for North America. (Created by the author in Starry Night).

But fret not; you may still be able to spot Jupiter near the Moon on the 18th… in the daytime. Daytime planet-spotting is a fun feat of visual athletics, and the daytime Moon always serves as a fine guide. Jupiter is juuuuuust bright enough to see near the Moon with the unaided eye if you know exactly where to look;

Jupiter captured during a close 2012 pass in the daytime! (Photo by author).
Jupiter captured during a close 2012 pass in the daytime! (Photo by author).

To see a planet in the daytime, you’ll need a clear, blue sky. One trick we’ve used is to take an empty paper towel tube and employ it as a “1x finder” to help find our target… binoculars may also help! To date, we’ve seen Venus, Jupiter, Sirius & Mars near favorable opposition all in the daylight… Mercury and Vega should also be possible under rare and favorable conditions.

This week’s occultation of Jupiter is the 3rd and final in a series that started in December of last year. The Moon won’t occult a planet again until an occultation of Venus on September 8th later this year, and won’t occult Jupiter again until July 9th, 2016. We’re also in the midst of a long series of occultations of the bright star Spica (Alpha Virginis) in 2013, as the Moon occults it once every lunation from somewhere in the world. Four major stars brighter than +1st magnitude lie along the Moon’s path near the ecliptic; Spica, Aldebaran, Regulus, and Antares which we caught an occultation of in 2009;

Also of note: we’re approaching a “plane-crossing” of the Jovian moons next year. This means that we’ll start seeing Callisto casting shadows on the Jovian cloud tops this summer on July 20th, and it will continue until July 21st, 2016. The orbits of the Jovian moons appear edge-on to us about every five years, and never really deviate a large amount. Callisto is the only moon that can “miss” casting a shadow on the disk of Jupiter in its passage.  The actual plane crossing as seen from the Earth occurs in November 2014. Jupiter reaches solar conjunction this year on June 19th and doesn’t come back into opposition until early next year on January 5th. 2013 is an “opposition-less” year for Jupiter, which occurs on average once per every 11-12 years. (One Jovian orbit equals 11.8 Earth years).

The Moon plus Jupiter during last month's close conjunction. (Photo by author).
The Moon plus Jupiter during last month’s close conjunction. (Photo by author).

But wait, there’s more… the Moon will also occult +7.7th magnitude 4 Vesta on February 18th at~21:00 UT. This occultation occurs across South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. It would be fun to catch its ingress behind the dark limb of the Moon, and we bet that a precisely timed video might just show evidence for Vesta’s tiny angular diameter as it winks out. For North American observers, Vesta will sit just off the northern limb of the Moon… if you have never seen it, now is a great time to try!

Finally, we realized that also in the field with 4 Vesta is an explorer that just departed its environs, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Although unobservable from Earth, we thought that it would be an interesting exercise to see if it gets occulted by the Moon as well this week, and in fact it does, for a very tiny slice of the planet;

The occultation of the Dawn spacecraft as seen from Earth. Created by the author using Occult 4.0.
The occultation of the Dawn spacecraft as seen from Earth. Created by the author using Occult 4.0.

Hey, calculating astronomical oddities is what we do for fun… be sure to post those pics of Jupiter, the Moon and more up to our Universe Today Flickr page & enjoy the celestial show worldwide!

See more of Luis Argerich’s astrophotography at Nightscape Photography.

Graphics created by author using Stellarium, Starry Night and Occult 4.0 software.