On May 20th 2012, the Moon and Sun came together in a show that did not disappoint. However, it was the Sun that took center stage as it was the object of occlusion that was to produce sights that few have seen. It was an exhilarating event that did produce the excitement promised.
However, the eclipse of the sun could not have happened with out the moon. This month’s eclipse eclipsed the fact that what took place was the conjunction of the moon and the sun, an event that takes place in every lunar cycle. Conjunction marks the moment when the moon passe directly between the Earth and the Sun. Most months the Moon’s plane of orbit places it either above or below the Earth’s plane of orbit around the Sun and thus an eclipse of the Sun does not occur. Yet each and every lunar cycle brings a conjunction and the birth of a new moon.
Fortunate is the one who had the opportunity to witness the physical conjunction take place on this current lunar cycle, for most months it is an invisible event. The moment the Moon passes that conjunction the moon is born and the angle between the Moon-Earth-Sun, known as Elongation, begins to grow until it is large enough that light from the Sun will start reflecting off of the Moon and the surface of the Moon becomes visible to our eyes.
Last night it was the Moon’s turn to take center stage and reveal itself as the fine crescent that it is when it is a new moon. On a first day, the Moon is not visible before sunset and in most cases it will not be visible until close to 4/9ths the time between sunset and moonset. Many factors are involved in the visibility of the new crescent Moon after conjunction. Elongation, Moonset lag time after sunset, Percent of the Moon’s Illumination (also known as the Arc of Illumination), its Altitude at the time of sunset and the Age of the Moon past conjunction.
Last night at sunset the Moon was about 25 hours and 45 minute old. A very young Moon. It had an Elongation of only 12°, a value that is below the accepted 15° that is needed for easily seeing it and it was only 1% illuminated, the actual minimum that is needed to be seen. At best it was going to be a difficult moon to see even with perfect sky conditions.
When I arrived last night at my normal viewing location atop Russian Ridge just west of the SF Bay Area at 2300 feet above sea level, the sky was not looking good.
The horizon was nearly completely covered in high clouds obscuring the sky and almost any hope of seeing such a young crescent moon. To make matters worse, this new Moon was to mark the beginning of the 8th month in the Islamic Calendar, Rajab, a hallmark month, and one that is critical in establishing the beginning of Ramadan just two months away. For a new Moon sighting to be accepted according to Islamic Jurisprudence, two adults must witness the new crescent Moon as a naked eye sighting without any optical aids. I was just one man, who could only coax his 12 year old and 6 year old daughters to accompany him.
It was not looking good. Nonetheless, I waited, scanning the sky back and forth, referring to an ephemeris for guidance as to where in the sky the moon should be. I looked, I measured, I waited. The light was fading so I decided to do the Sunset prayer up there on the ridge. Once finished I continued to look. Text messages were filling my phone quickly with questions asking if the moon had been seen. My only reply, “stay tuned”. I only knew of one other person out looking in our area and even though he did say he would meet me up on the ridge it looked like he was not going to make it.
As the optimal viewing time approached I looked even harder, but to my disappointment the area I needed to be clear, where the Moon should be was obscured by clouds. I decided to just start taking photos of the sky in the vicinity of where the moon should be and then later after I returned home I could examine them closely for any tell-tale signs of a crescent. It would not count as a sighting but I could still check.
Just then my eyes caught a glimpse of a thin white curved line just poking out of the clouds. I looked harder and to my utter amazement it was the crescent Moon! It was exactly where I thought it would be hidden behind a thin gray curtain of moisture in the sky. My daughters rushed over and asked where it was. I pointed it out and my eldest saw it immediately. It was 8:53 pm when we made that first sighting, and I pointed the camera at it and started to photograph. In between the shutter releases I would reply to the text messages in the confirmation of the sighting. It was still not a valid sighting as I was the only adult, a situation that I have fallen into many times in the past, especially for the month of Rajab.
All of a sudden, in the twilight, I heard some voices. I looked back to see it was my friend and his family. They arrived just in time. I called out to them to hurry before it sets. They came up to me and I pointed it out and all but one of his younger sons could see it clearly as it continued to sink closer to the horizon. We had a confirmed sighting and my demeanor changed instantly from contented sadness to jubilation. I can’t remember a sighting event where I was so happy to have another adult with me to establish a positive sighting.
This Moon was only 26.3 hours old past conjunction. One of the youngest moons I have ever had the pleasure to see and photograph. As thin as this moon was it most definitely took the stage last night.
So to all my Muslim readers, a Rajab Mubarak!
Peace to You All!