Thursday, March 3, 2011

Finding the Holy Grail

Everyone is familiar with the story of the Holy Grail, the legendary cup from the Last Supper that, according to some accounts, has mystical properties that have driven men throughout the ages to try and find it. Astronomers, specifically lunar observers, have their own Holy Grail: Young Moons, or ones less than 24 hours old. However, unlike the “real” Grail, this is one that can actually be found and the coming months present the only time of year to do it, too.

Right now, thanks to the near-vertical ecliptic plane at sunset, the Moon will be riding as high as is possible, at least as seen from Earth. Result, this is the time of year to go looking for wire-thin crescents just after sunset.

Obviously, when looking for Moons less than 2% lit, there are going to be a lot of challenges. However, above all others, one really stands out, haze. It is the prevalence of haze just after sunset that, single-handedly, ruins many Young Moon hunts by turning a crystal-clear evening into a twilight sky full of dark haze, even in the winter. The tendency to have haze at night is why Young Moons are so hard to see. Old Moons in the fall morning? That's easy, the haze has all long-since burned off.

So, with spring upon us (it arrives on the 20th), Young Moon season is here, too. So, with 4 good chances this year (March-June), hopefully we will all be treated to clear, hazeless skies and thus the chance to see the thinnest of Moons, including a true Young Moon in May.

Future Thin Moons:
Saturday, March 5, 28 hours old
Monday, April 4, 32 hours old
Tuesday, May 3, 17 hours (a true Young Moon!)
Thursday, June 2, 26 hours old

As some inspiration, here are some true Young Moons I've captured through the years. Note, there are only three of them, thus showcasing the rarity of everything going just right!

 17 hour Moon through Orion ED80, February, 2010

19 hour Moon, 300mm equivalent, May, 2006.

 23 hour Moon, heavily cropped 10Mp image, May, 2010

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