September 16, 2014

Sighting Extremely Slender Moons Part II

     Earlier in April, I wrote about a challenge that came to our attention via a Sky & Telescope article here at Astroguyz. The Canadian Maritime Provences and extreme northeastern Maine had a chance at a unique record; sighting the youngest New Moon with optical aid.Moon sighting records have almost reached mythic status amongst “visual athletes.” 

  

          Unfortunately, we were clouded out at our planned Houlton, Maine site for our record breaking attempt this past Monday. Weather seems to be the driving theme as of late. The “New Moon” looked very much like the introductory image. Hey, the universe is 99.99999% percent nothingness… while all those “other” blogs cover the trivial fraction of reality, we here at Astroguyz have got a view of the big picture.

          Of course, these things happen in the world of extreme astronomy. A tale of astronomical intrigue thwarted by cloudiness comes to mind.

          In days of yore, a French astronomer sought to observe the 1761 transit of Venus across the face of the sun. Such observations were crucial at the time for determining the relative scale of the solar system. However, the transit was not visible from his native France or anywhere in Europe. The astronomer decided to observe instead from India. Passage to the subcontinent was a lengthy affair; a one way ticket took six months and included risk of disease and several civil wars. And being that astronomers of the day were part of the elite aristocracy, that was just in First Class! Anyway, as fate would have it, the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France was in full swing. The targeted port of Pondichery had fallen into enemy hands just before their arrival; the luckless astronomer had to observe the transit from the pitching deck of a ship! Now, transits of Venus occur in pairs; that is, intervals of eight years, then followed by 122 years, then eight, and so on.                

 

So our hero, with the patience of a Hindu saint decides to sit out the eight year interval. Eight years come and go, and you guessed it; the day dawns cloudy! But that’s not the end of our astronomical hard luck story. The astronomer, knowing that his prospects of living another 122 years are exceedingly small, returns to Europe, only to find that his wife had declared him legally dead, sold his estate, and remarried. The moral of the story? Don’t take the universe too seriously… it obviously doesn’t.

 

 

So, why bother with the borderline obsession of glimpsing wispy crescent moons? Sure this could be seen as a “so what?” observation. I can hear my wife saying “I don’t see it…” or refrains of “that’s it?” from jaded Generation-Xbox’ers. Still, such observations reveal the limitations of human optical ability, and may tell us something new about the validity of old historical observations. You just never know when a piece of datum may come in useful. And for religions that base their calendars on the lunar cycle, the month doesn’t begin until the evening of the new crescent Moon. A disagreement in observations can knock a calendar out of whack by a day, and days do indeed add up. So the 2002 record will have to stand for a while…was anyone in the Canadian Maritimes successful? A real-time moon sighting network would be handy to discuss and gauge the “action” out there…and does anyone know the name of our ill-fated astronomer? The answer next week!

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