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Clouds Threaten Rare Chance to See Star “Wink” Over New York City

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star chart for Regulus on March 20, 2014

The bright star Regulus will lie high in the sky toward the southwest on March 20 just after 2:06 am EDT, when the asteroid Erigone will occult it. Credit: IOTA/Stellarium

Gloomy weather over New York could drown out a rare opportunity to see a bright star disappear from the sky very early tomorrow morning during what’s known as an “occultation.” The star Regulus, one of the brightest points in the constellation Leo, should appear to “wink out” for about 14 seconds when the asteroid (163) Erigone passes in front of it Thursday just after 2:05 a.m. EDT.

Clouds and rain  could spoil the sight. “They’re forecasting about 90 percent cloud-cover, with a 65 percent chance of rain,” says astronomer Bob Berman, who will co-host a live Webcast of the event hosted by the Slooh Space Camera. “That’s pretty dismal.” In fact, the weather is so bad that Steve Preston, an observer with the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA), which has been anticipating this event for about 10 years, is sitting the night out. “I was going to fly to Albany, but I changed my mind yesterday and bailed on my plans. I hope I made the wrong decision,” he says, adding that a break in the clouds could give some viewers a chance to see the occultation.

The alignment would be visible along a large wide swath extending from Long Island and New York City up north and west into Canada. Given clear skies, observers would see Regulus disappear as the 45-mile-wide asteroid Erigone, which is too dim to spot on its own, passed in front of it. Such asteroid-bright star alignments, especially over populated areas, are few and far between. “I’ve been a professional astronomer for over 40 years and I have never seen an occultation of a star this bright,” Berman says. “That’s how rare it is.”

Astronomers are still hoping that the cloud-cover will break up somewhere along the occultation’s path—a small chance of clear spots near the Catskills and New York City is predicted. If a break occurs, observers stationed all along the path of sight should catch it. Slooh’s astronomers, for example, will send direct video feeds from across the region, so viewers of the live Webcast can see it. “If this breaks anywhere, we’ll get it,” Berman says. The Webcast will also include telescope views of the asteroid from outside the occultation’s path, and commentary from astronomers and members of IOTA. The broadcast is set to start at 1:45 am EDT, and is viewable at, or at the bottom of this page.

Intrepid stargazers who want to give it a shot from their own backyards can find Regulus by following the two pointer stars at the end of the Big Dipper opposite the direction of the North Star. This line will take you right to the constellation Leo, the Lion. In that group, the brightest star is Regulus.

IOTA members chase occultations not just for the show, but for the chance to learn something new about asteroids and the stars they block. With enough observers gathering precise timing information about when an occultation is visible from their location, the group can map out a two-dimensional picture of the shape of the asteroid. The technique is illustrated in a graphic made during the 2011 occultation by the asteroid (90) Antiope here:

“Quite often occultations are really the only way to get a fairly accurate snapshot of the asteroid,” Preston says. “In the case of Regulus, there was one other tidbit of information we were hoping to learn.” Some observations of Regulus suggest the object is not just one star, but two—that in fact a hidden white dwarf star orbits Regulus in a close binary system. If Regulus is a double star, it should be evident during the occultation, because the asteroid should pass over each star at a slightly different moment. “We were hoping we’d have the chance to detect the companion star in the light curve,” Preston says. While that possibility is not eliminated, the unpromising weather makes such a detection unlikely.

If tonight’s occultation is a no show, stargazers will have to be patient. The next major chance to see such a sight will come in 2023, when the bright star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion will be occulted over southern Europe and Turkey. Mark your calendar!

Clara Moskowitz About the Author: Clara Moskowitz is Scientific American's associate editor covering space and physics. Follow on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. bgrnathan 10:00 am 03/20/2014

    ASTEROIDS, COMETS, AND METEORS ORIGINATED FROM EARTH: In the Earth’s past there were powerful volcanic explosions propelling millions of tons of earth soil and rock (now asteroids and meteors which may contain organic molecules or organisms) into space. Read my popular Internet article, ANY LIFE ON MARS CAME FROM EARTH. The article explains how millions of tons of Earth soil may exist on Mars, and how debris we call asteroids and meteors could have originated from Earth. According to a Newsweek article of September 21, 1998, p. 12 that quotes a NASA scientist, SEVEN MILLION tons of Earth soil may exist on Mars! How could this be possible? Read and find out.

    Even if the right chemicals exist, life cannot arise by chance. The molecules that make-up life have to be in a sequence, just like the letters found in a sentence.

    Scientist and creationist, Brian Thomas explains:

    “Astronomers measure comets’ masses and erosion rates to calculate potential lifespans. Sun grazing comets last fewer than 100,000 years.2 They thus confront secular astronomy which maintains that comets formed with the rest of the solar system billions of years ago. A solar system that old should have no remaining comets.

    How do secularists solve this dilemma?

    Reporting on Ison, The Independent said, “Comet Ison has taken millions of years to reach us travelling from the so-called Oort cloud – a reservoir of trillions and trillions of chunks of rock and ice, leftovers from the birth of the planets.”3

    Unfortunately, nobody has yet witnessed a single one of those “trillions and trillions of chunks.” Going strictly with observational science, the “so-called Oort cloud” may exist only in the reservoir of the human mind.

    Clearly, secular astronomers invented the Oort cloud to rescue their billions-of-years dogma from a disintegration process that limits a comet’s age—and thus the age of the Solar System—to thousands of years. When Ison becomes visible later this year, perhaps it will remind thoughtful viewers that the universe is quite young, just as Scripture teaches” (Brian Thomas, M.S., Science Writer at the Institute for Creation research).

    Check out my most recent Internet articles and sites: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION and WAR AMONG EVOLUTIONISTS (2nd Edition)

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    B.A. Bible/Biology


    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

    Link to this
  2. 2. KMacLaine 4:47 pm 03/20/2014

    bgrnathan, I take exception to pretty much your entire comment.

    Here are my comments on the few pieces of information that you actually wrote. For my arguments for the remainder of your comment, taken from Brian Thomas’ article, please visit my blog post.

    1) Yes, possibly some asteroids and meteors do contain matter from Earth. Comets, however, are formed by solar nebula (or baby solar systems). You use this information later when you say our solar system is only 100,000 years old (more on that later) so why would start out with saying something that you directly contradict with your quote from Brian Thomas later?

    2) Perhaps your choice of letters in a sentence was a poor choice of simile, but life (and sentences) can and are created by chance. For example, a simple sentence like “I did.” has 4 letters, 1 space and 1 punctuation mark. Rearranging only those 6 characters, there are 720 combinations possible (including repetitions created by the two “d”s and two “I”s in the sentence). You could jumble those letters a million times and the laws of mathematics say that the same sentence “I did.” would eventually come up by chance.

    Yes, there are more than just two letters, but sentences can be of virtually any length, and while there are many combinations that do not make sentences, there are countless that do! Life is the same, thought the building blocks may be more complex and varied than letters, there are (obviously) combinations that result in life! And who says our models of life are the only ones out there?!
    In fact, the laws of very large numbers say it is highly UNLIKELY that Earth is the only planet with life.

    Link to this

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