It’s a ring!

What a night this was – the evening that three Queenslanders discovered a ring around (50000) Quaoar and almost 18 months later on, today, at long last, the discovery was published in Nature magazine for the world to see!

Myself and many others were observing this event for a main body occultation predicted by Luckystar last year, but seeing that we were well out of the path we decided to take a long-shot and record early and late to see if we could discover anything unusual. And boy did that pay off

I was watching live with Renato Langersek and spotted a ‘blip’ several minutes early and jotted down the time in my observers log. The main event came and went as expected – a miss – but when we reduced the data it was clear that our data, and that of John Broughton, lined up perfectly.

And to quote John : “After downloading a Ser viewer I can confirm the occultation blip is for real! The only conclusion to come to is that Quaoar must have a narrow ring about 10km wide and by implication is indirect evidence of shepherd moons. The fact that only single occultations have been observed from 3 out of 7 sites suggest it’s a ring arc akin to those discovered in the 80s surrounding Neptune, but even those have non-opaque matter in the remainder of the orbit. With that in mind, and extrapolating the Queensland times southward, the NSW observers should look for a 1 or 2-second fade around 10:52:00 UT.”

And that my friends, is history.

Moon Vs Regulus

Spoiler Alert: The moon won!

And occultation of a bright star by the moon is a rare sight indeed. Australasians were treated to a tussle with Regulus on the 4th of May and I was lucky to have perfect conditions in Woomera, South Australia where I found my self three months into a 12 month adventure around Oz.

Armed with my trusty portable occultation timing kit and a modified 60mm binocular objective I was able to record the event. Of course, the view was much nicer ‘live’ through an unmodified set of Bino’s!


It’s not often I can stake my claim to a first, but here is double one. First amateur to capture a Centaur (that’s an asteroid between Saturn and Neptune) occulting a star and also the first amateur to record the rings around an asteroid!

Charliko is the only known asteroid to have rings. They were discovered last year by a team of professional astronomers lead by Prof Bruno Sicardy who is a great friend to the amateur and whom provides us with great predictions so that we can help provide him data. This event was well attended by the Australian Occultation faithful and I recorded in somewhat difficult circumstances the event. Unfortunately I was the only person to capture it – the more ‘chords’ the better the scientific payload but Bruno assures me that the data will be added to the original observations and will significantly improve the positional data that we know about the rock.

And that is great news, because with better predictions, we can make even better observations in the future. Sweet.


Saturn Occulted

After a few days build-up under superb skies here in Queensland, the big day comes and it clouds over! It is surprisingly rare that the moon passes in front of our solar system neighbours, so when it happens we get excited. These events are special in their beauty and rarity more than for any scientific value and 2014 has given us Australians three chances to watch Saturn disappear. This was the second and only partially successful for me as I recorded glimpses of the event through thick cloud.

Others have done much better and I’ll post some links as I get them!Saturn

Venus Occults Star

Planetary occultations of naked eye stars have got to be one of the rarest celestial events. I had forgotten just how bad the ‘seeing’ was in my pre-dawn sky, but captured Lambda Aquarii emerging from the dark side of Venus this morning.

I’d been hoping to post a nice light curve of brightening as the star popped through the atmosphere, but the bad conditions made the video a little wild!

Very beautiful in its own way…

Asteroid Occultation Path predictions and astrometry

Generating path predictions for asteroid occultations:
We essentially need only three inputs to compute a path prediction: the position of the star at the time of the event, the position of the asteroid at the time of the event, and the size/shape of the asteroid. At this point in time, Occult has a database of the maximum diameter for asteroids. Dave Herald compiles this list of diameters from a variety of sources. And, at this point in time, Occult only uses a maximum diameter and does not attempt handle non-circular shapes or orientations for non-circular asteroid profiles. Therefore the primary inputs are really the asteroid position and star position.

For the asteroid position I compute an orbit fit using the latest astrometry of the asteroid. I use the asteroid astrometry from the MPC, the latest astrometry from FASTT (USNO), and the latest astrometry from Bill Owen (also available from the MPC). I generally post updates right after I receive the latest distribution of asteroid astrometry from FASTT. When computing the orbit I use a protocol established many years ago – I increase the weighting for the data from FASTT and Bill Owen. Analysis of past asteroid occultation observations supports the idea that this approach works well.
Although there is some reason to believe that the uncertainty calculated by the orbit fit program is too optimistic – maybe we should increase this formal uncertainty by a factor of 1.3 or so. Hugh Harris (FASTT) and Bill Owen both have a list of the asteroid occultations for each year and both do
a great job of scheduling astrometry for asteroids involved in asteroid occultations.

For the star position I almost always use the position from one of the major catalogs: FK6, Hipparcos (2nd reduction), UCAC4, and PPMXL. Choosing a catalog is simple in theory (pick the most accurate catalog position) but often challenging in practice. Each catalog has strengths and weaknesses.
As David has noted in the past, some of these catalogs are “aging” – particular Hipparcos. The Hipparcos positions are based on observations in 1991. Any errors in the proper motions from Hipparcos increase as we move forward in time. Some of these errors are covered by the formal catalog uncertainties given in the Hipparcos catalog. But all catalogs have systemic, un-modeled, errors and these errors will become more of an issue over time. In addition to concerns about the aging of catalog, sometimes two relatively “similar” catalogs can have roughly equal accuracies but
noticeably different positions. We do not have access to the source data for these catalogs. And we do not have access to state of the art software for fitting proper motion solutions. So we do not have the option to truly build up our own proper motion solution or review the automated proper motion solutions from these catalogs. We have to just choose between two catalogs with no other guidance. In some instances the catalog positions vary by a large amount – perhaps as much as 50 mas. In these situations we have occasionally asked Bill Owen or Hugh Harris (USNO) if they can measure
a current position for the star (astrometry of the star).

However, I am somewhat skeptical of the benefits of stellar astrometry for our events. In my opinion, even 50mas is a big challenge in stellar astrometry. Considering all the potential systemic issues (e.g. zonal catalog errors) I, personally, would not hope for an accuracy of more than 20mas for these measurements. If we are trying to decide between two catalog positions which are 50mas apart then I would trust a good round of stellar astrometry from Bill Owen or Hugh Harris (the best in the world).
But if we are trying to separate two positions at 20mas, I’m skeptical of the value of astrometry of the star alone. In addition, I believe that dim companion stars cause many issues with these positions. A dim companion can easily cause significant disparities between the photocenter measurements
and the actual center of a primary star – at least significant for our purposes. I can easily believe that a dim companion could yield a 50mas offset between the center of a primary and the photocenter – and we would not detect this offset with ground based stellar astrometry. Therefore, stellar astrometry cannot solve all of our problems with star positions. Between today and release of Gaia data, stellar astrometry may be useful in spotting gross positional errors on the order of 30mas or so. For major
events where we plan to commit significant resources, it makes sense to ask for stellar astrometry as a check against catalog positions. But we should not expect that stellar astrometry will yield a noticeable improvement in the overall path statistics on a broad scale.

Asteroid/Star relative astrometry:
I will briefly mention one other option for fine tuning path predictions. In some situations it is possible to image both the asteroid and star on the same frame. We can then directly measure the relative offset between the star and the asteroid with much higher accuracy than possible in other
approaches. In theory, with this approach we might be able to bring the path accuracy down below 10mas. However, there are some challenges. First, most asteroids are moving too fast. Even with unusually large imaging setups the asteroid and star are only in the same frame less than 24 hours
before the event – we don’t have enough time to process the data and get the information to observers in time for deployment. Second, this level of accuracy is extremely challenging for equipment and for the image processing. Hugh Harris has attempted this approach for two asteroid occultation events where the asteroid was moving slowly enough and he had access to a special 60″ astrometric setup. We hoped to use these events as test cases to determine if practice matched theory. Unfortunately, both events were clouded out. And we don’t often have events where the asteroid is moving slowly enough and Hugh has access to the necessary scope. But we are still keeping an eye out for future opportunities to test this approach.

Steve Preston