Observers concerned asteroid 'celestial drama' may not be visible

The star Regulus seen through Celestron CGEM DX The star Regulus seen through Celestron CGEM DX 1100 @ F6.3, Canon T3i, Televue 4X Powermate, ISO 800, 30 second exposure. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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While there is a chance you can look up to the early morning sky Thursday and see a star 300 times brighter than the sun "wink" at you as an asteroid passes, the viewing hinges on cloud covering. And as of Tuesday, the weather did not appear to be accommodating.

"We'll be on pins and needles," said Sue Rose, of East Meadow, president of the Amateur Observers' Society of New York and a retired air traffic controller.

That's as optimistic astronomers, educators and citizen scientists gather in the area, hoping for skies to clear Thursday at a little past 2 a.m. for a glimpse of the 14 second or so phenomenon, when the asteroid Erigone, about 100 million miles from Earth and not visible, briefly obliterates the view of the star Regulus in the constellation Leo.

Rose said the group's meteorologist was giving a 10 percent probability of a successful viewing, meaning possible breaks in the clouds, "and if you're lucky, one of the breaks is in the right place at the right time."

Such occultations -- when space objects block stars -- may "happen all the time," said Emily Rice, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. One reason this one is so special is that Regulus is the "21st brightest star in the night sky," she said.

Another reason is that the "wink out" can be seen potentially by those in about a 70-mile wide strip, moving from southeast to northwest across the highly populated areas of most of Long Island and New York City, as well as up through upstate and into Canada, according to the International Occultation Timing Association, a group of volunteers. That's with no need for binoculars or a telescope.

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While this could be happening over, say, Nebraska or the ocean, "the only narrow strip on the Earth" where this star wink can be potentially viewed travels right through New York City, said Rice, 34.

The occultation timing group looks to enlist citizen scientists to "share in a moment of celestial drama," said Steve Preston, president and amateur astronomer, with guidelines for reporting observations found at occultations.org/regulus2014/.

He said the forecast led him to cancel his plans to fly to Albany Tuesday from the Seattle area, but he hopes his decision was wrong, that the skies clear and "lots of people get to see Regulus disappear."

Models as of late Tuesday afternoon for that 2 a.m. time frame, forecast a 60 percent chance of rain for the city and an 80 percent chance for Long Island, with a 100 percent chance of cloudy skies, said Lauren Nash, National Weather Service meteorologist in Upton.

Still, if this event turns out to be a bust, there's always the next chance for sighting an asteroid occultation of such a bright star -- that would be in 2023 in southern Europe, Preston said.

Rice and her crowd are going on with their plans, she said, referring to members of a group she helped form, Astronomy on Tap, with the motto "Science is even better with beer."

They'll still be heading out to several New York City bars to "talk about asteroids or gravitational waves and inflation. Whatever floats your boat," according to the group's website, Astronomyontap.org. Depending on cloud cover, they'll also go out onto the streets to see Regulus briefly disappear from view, the site says.

It's a "very precious opportunity. We're going for it no matter what," Rice said. And, even if the star wink is masked by cloud cover, "We'll know it's happening."

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