Neil deGrasse Tyson explains occultation of Regulus - KMSP-TV

Neil deGrasse Tyson explains occultation of Regulus

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Where a dead-end street meets the river in Sea Bright, New Jersey, amateur astronomer Ted Blank assembled a telescope, Wednesday, to watch an asteroid pass in front of a star.

"It's a way to make a contribution to science for the average citizen," Blank said.

But before we let Ted tell us why the greater scientific community would need him in the middle of the night, we thought we'd first check in with one of those professional scientists.

"An 'occulation' vs. an eclipse?" we asked Neil deGrasse Tyson, the renowned astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium, and host of Fox's new show "Cosmos."

"There's no such word as 'occulation,'" he said.

Not an ideal start to an interview. Then again, it's not every day you get owned by one of the preeminent astrophysicists in the world.

That blunder brought to you by the missing letter "T."

"Oh, occultation," deGrasse Tyson said. "So, an occultation happens when one object passes in front of another."

For example, when an asteroid passes between one's vantage point on planet earth and a far-away star.

"And that asteroid is large enough, deGrasse Tyson said, "that Regulus will drop out of sight for everyone in the five-borough area and a little bit of Nassau County as well."

Regulus -- located more than 77 light years from earth and one of the brightest stars in the sky -- should also disappear from Blank's view in New Jersey, allowing Blank and a smattering of other Occultation Timing Association volunteers scattered at different points throughout New York and New Jersey to record when they each see the star disappear then reappear. They'll then compare their measurements and hopefully be able to estimate the dimensions of that passing asteroid.

"Professional astronomers who are looking to study the asteroids and the origins of the solar system actually want to know the shapes and sizes of these asteroids," Blank said.

And for those of us who don't volunteer for the Occultation Timing Association, if the sky's clear, we can witness this event at around 2 a.m. Thursday without a telescope.

"So, just stand out and watch the thing disappear," deGrasse Tyson said, "count out the time, watch it come back and then go back to sleep."

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