Ultra-Thin “Young” Crescent Moon Sighted from U.S. Southwest

 Earlier this week, Universe Today challenged North American readers to spot the slender, exceptionally “young” crescent Moon on the evening of New Year’s Day.

Three visual athletes based in Arizona took up the challenge on Wednesday evening, with amazing results. Mike Weasner, Rob Sparks and Jim Cadien managed to spot the razor thin crescent Moon just 13 hours and 48 minutes after it passed New phase earlier on January 1st. The sighting was made using binoculars, and they even managed to image the wisp of a crescent hanging against the desert sky.

This is a difficult feat, even under the best of conditions. Weasner and Sparks observed from Mike’s Cassiopeia observatory based just outside of Oracle, Arizona.

Credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory
A thin crescent Moon (arrowed) Credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory

Concerning the feat, Weasner wrote on his observing blog:

“At 1800 Mountain Standard Time (MST), Rob reported that he had located the young Moon using his 8×42 binoculars. At 18:02 MST, I picked it up in the 12×70 binoculars. With the New Moon occurring at 11:14 Universal Time (UT), my observation occurred with the Moon only 13 hours and 48 minutes old. A new record for me (and Rob and Jim as well). Our DSLRs were clicking away!”

We can personally attest to just how hard it is to pick out the uber-thin crescent Moon against the twilight sky. Low contrast is your enemy, making it tough to spot and even tougher to photograph. Add to that a changing twilight sky that alters hue from moment to moment.

Though this isn’t a world record, its close to within about two hours. The youngest confirmed Moon spotting using binoculars stands at 11 hours and 40 minutes accomplished by Mohsen G. Mirsaeed in Iran back in September 7th, 2002, and the youngest Moon sighted with the unaided eye goes to Steven James O’Meara in May 1990, who spotted a 15 hour 32 minute old crescent.

Mike Cadien (left) and Rob Sparks (right) setting up to catch the crescent Moon. Credit- Mike Weasner.
Jim Cadien (left) and Rob Sparks (right) setting up to catch the crescent Moon. Credit– Mike Weasner.

And of course, you can see the Moon at the moment of New during a a solar eclipse. Unfortunately, no total solar eclipses occur in 2014, just an usual non-central annular eclipse brushing Australia and Antarctica on April 29th  and a deep 81% partial eclipse crossing North America on October 23rd.

Weasner also noted that a bright Venus aided them in their quest. It’s strange to think that Venus, though visually tiny, is actually intrinsically brighter than the limb of the Moon, owing to its higher albedo. In fact, some great pictures have also been pouring in to Universe Today of Venus as it heads towards inferior conjunction this month on January 11th. And don’t forget, that quoted magnitude of the lunar crescent (about magnitude -3.4) was also scattered along the lunar disk which was only 0.4% illuminated, and subject to atmospheric extinction to boot!

Our own modest attempt to catch the waning crescent Moon 29 hours prior to New back in August 2012. Photo by author.
Our own modest attempt to catch the waning crescent Moon 29 hours prior to New back in August 2012. Photo by author.

And yes, it is possible to catch the Moon photographically during a non-eclipse at the moment of New phase. The Moon can wander up to 5 degrees – about ten times its average apparent diameter as seen from the Earth – above or below the ecliptic and appear a corresponding distance from the limb of the Sun. Unlike many moons in the solar system, Earth’s moon has a fixed inclination to our orbit (as traced out by the ecliptic,) not our rotational axis. Thierry Legault accomplished this challenging photographic feat last year. Of course, this should only be attempted by seasoned astrophotographers, as aiming a camera near the Sun is not advised.

The January 2nd 2014, waxing crescent Moon plus "Earthshine" as captured by Ron Cottrell from Oro Valley, Arizona. Ron also notes that this illumination of the night time side of the the Moon is also known as "da Vinci's glow".
The January 2nd 2014 waxing crescent Moon plus “Earthshine” as captured by Ron Cottrell from Oro Valley, Arizona. Ron also notes that this illumination of the nighttime side of the the Moon is also known as the “da Vinci” glow. Credit-Ron Cottrell.

Why attempt to spot the razor thin New Moon? What’s the benefit? Well, several lunar based dating systems, such as the Islamic calendar, rely on the spotting of the new crescent Moon to mark the beginning of a new month. Being strictly lunar-based, the Islamic calendar moves an average of -11 days out of sync each year versus the modern day Gregorian calendar. On some years, there can even be a bit of ambiguity as to exactly when key months such as Ramadan will begin based on when the Moon is first sighted.

Also, such a feat demonstrates what the human eye is capable of when pushed to its physiological limits. In fact, French astrophysicist Andre Danjon theorized that the lunar crescent is formed at about 5 degrees elongation from the Sun, a point beyond which a lunar crescent can be sighted — usually quoted at about 7 degrees elongation from the Sun — and has become known as the Danjon Limit. Danjon also gave his namesake to the characterization of total lunar eclipses by color and hue, known as the Danjon Number. Accounting for the motion of the Moon, this places the theoretical limit that the forming crescent can be sighted with optical assistance at just over 11 hours.

Optimal sighting locations through the end of September 2014.
Optimal sighting locations through the end of September 2014. Positions are marked for where the Moon is visible at local sunset and becomes visible with optical assistance around 14 hours after New. Prospects for a “first sighting” get better westward of each location on the dates noted. Note that the March 1st event offers decent prospects for the US northeast and the Canadian Maritimes. Graphic created by author.

And you don’t have to wait until the Moon passes New… a similar attempt can be made in the dawn skies as the waning crescent Moon slides towards the Sun at the end of each lunation.

But perhaps the true reward is simply catching a glimpse of the ethereal for yourself, a delicate and airy Moon clinging briefly on the horizon. Kudos to Mike and Rob on a great catch!

Follow the further adventures of Mike Weasner and Rob Sparks on Twitter as @mweasner & @halfastro.

Wonder what the sighting opportunities are for the next waxing crescent Moon are worldwide? Two great online resources are the HM Nautical Office’s Einstein Moonwatch Project and Moonsighting.com.

The South African Astronomical Observatory also maintains a site with predictions worldwide.

What is a Waning Moon?

Human beings have been observing the Moon for as long as they have walked the Earth. Throughout recorded and pre-recorded history, they have paid close attention to its phases and accorded them particular significance. This has played a major role in shaping the mythological and astrological traditions of every known culture.

With the birth of astronomy as a scientific discipline, how the Moon appears in the night sky (and sometimes during the day) has also gone long way towards helping us to understand how our Solar System works. It all comes down to the Lunar Cycle, the two key parts of this cycle involve the “waxing and waning” of the Moon. But what exactly does this mean?-day

Lunar Cycle:

First, we need to consider the orbital parameters of the Earth’s only satellite. For starters, since the Moon orbits Earth, and Earth orbits the Sun, the Moon is always half illuminated by the latter. But from our perspective here on Earth, which part of the Moon is illuminated – and the amount to which it is illuminated – changes over time.

When the Sun, the Moon and Earth are perfectly lined up, the angle between the Sun and the Moon is 0-degrees. At this point, the side of the Moon facing the Sun is fully illuminated, and the side facing the Earth is enshrouded in darkness. We call this a New Moon.

After this, the phase of the Moon changes, because the angle between the Moon and the Sun is increasing from our perspective. A week after a New Moon, and the Moon and Sun are separated by 90-degrees, which effects what we will see. And then, when the Moon and Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth, they’re at 180-degrees – which corresponds to a Full Moon.

Waxing vs. Waning:

The period in which a Moon will go from a New Moon to a Full Moon and back again is known as “Lunar Month”. One of these lasts 28 days, and encompasses what are known as “waxing” and “waning” Moons. During the former period, the Moon brightens and its angle relative to the Sun and Earth increases.

Synthetic view of the waxing Moon as viewed from Earth on 2013-10-15 17:00:00 UTC [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Synthetic view of the waxing Moon as viewed from Earth on 2013-10-15 17:00:00 UTC. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
When the Moon starts to decrease its angle again, going from 180-degrees back down to 0-degrees, astronomers say that it’s a waning moon. In other words, when the Moon is waning, it will have less and less illumination every night until it’s a New Moon.

Waning Phases:

When the Moon is no longer full, but it hasn’t reached a quarter moon – i.e. when it’s half illuminated from our perspective – we say that it’s a Waning Gibbous Moon. This is the exact reverse of a Waxing Gibbous Moon, when the Moon is increasing in brightness from a New Moon to a Full Moon.

This is followed by a Third Quarter (or last quarter) Moon. During this period, 50% of the Moon’s disc will be illuminated (left side in the northern hemisphere, and the right in the southern), which is the opposite of how it would appear during a First Quarter. These phases are often referred to as a “Half Moon”, since half the disc is illuminated at the time.

The moon in its waning gibbous phase on Sept. 12, 2014. Photo taken with a Canon 700D attached to a Maksutov 127mm telescope. Credit: Sarah&Simon Fisher
The moon in its waning gibbous phase on Sept. 12, 2014. Photo taken with a Canon 700D attached to a Maksutov 127mm telescope. Credit: Sarah&Simon Fisher

Finally, a Waning Crescent is when the Moon appears as a sliver in the night sky, where between 49–1% of one side is illuminated after a Full Moon (again, left in the northern hemisphere, right in the southern). This is the opposite of a Waxing Crescent, when 1-49% of the other wide is illuminated before it reaches a Full Moon.

Even today, thousands of years later, human beings still look up at the Moon and are inspired by what they see. Not only have we explored Earth’s only satellite with robotic missions, but even crewed missions have been there and taken samples directly from the surface. And yet, it still possesses enough mystery to keep us inspired and guessing.

We have written many interesting articles about the Moon here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Moon’s Real Name?, Does the Moon Have Different Names?, What are the Phases of the Moon?, Is the Moon a Planet?, What is the Distance to the Moon?, and Who Were the First Men on the Moon?

Want to know when the next waning gibbous moon is going to happen? NASA has a list of moon phases for a period of 6000 years.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

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