April 2014

A Lunar Eclipse Won’t Tax You

The last total lunar eclipse visible from Tennessee was back in December 2010. We say ‘visible’, but in fact it was clouded out for us. Now, three years later, we have another chance in the pre-dawn hours of April 15. Set your alarm clocks, but check the weather forecast first!

Cloudy? Try watching it live online at slooh.com. Even if it's clear, consider tuning in for the audio commentary. Also try out the live streams from Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and PARI in the North Carolina mountains.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon moves through Earth’s shadow. As the eclipse progresses we see more and more of Earth’s shadow falling on the Moon’s surface. Lunar eclipses are perfectly safe to view, and you don’t need any special equipment. However, telescopes and binoculars can add to the fun.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

  • Partial eclipse begins: 12:58 am CDT
  • Total eclipse begins: 2:06 am
  • Total eclipse ends: 3:24 am
  • Partial eclipse ends: 4:33 am

All you really need to enjoy a lunar eclipse are your eyes and clear weather. You don’t even have to watch the whole thing. Just go out and take a look, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

Step outside for “first contact” as the curved shadow of the Earth takes its first bite out of the Full Moon’s brilliant disk. An hour later, the Moon will be almost completely blackened by Earth’s shadow. Then, as totality begins, the Moon will appear to change color to a coppery orange or deep blood red. The color is caused by sunlight refracted by Earth’s atmosphere onto the lunar surface. The exact color is affected by Earth’s atmospheric conditions such as recent volcanic eruptions.

After this, your next opportunity to see a lunar eclipse from this part of the world will be early on the morning of October 8, 2014.

On September 28, 2015, we’ll finally get a total lunar eclipse at a more convenient time, entering the partial phase just after 8 pm and reaching totality shortly before 10 pm on a Monday evening. Mark your calendar, and hope for clear weather.

April Astronomy

For months, Jupiter has been the brightest point of light visible in the evening sky. Even now, it still retains its title, appearing in the southwest and setting around midnight. Jupiter can be found within the constellation of Gemini the twins.

The second brightest point of light is the brightest nighttime star seen from Earth, Sirius. Sirius is also known as the “dog star” because it is part of Canis Major the big dog.

Look east just after sunset to find third place. Mars currently lies within the dim constellation of Virgo the maiden. Mars has a distinctive orange color and will be up all night for our enjoyment.

After midnight, Saturn rises above the eastern horizon in Libra the scales. Even though it’s currently dimmer than Mars, Saturn really stands out against the faint stars of Libra. Look for the Moon passing Saturn on the morning of April 17.

For those who are out before sunrise, the blindingly brilliant point of light in the southeast is, you guessed it, another planet. Which one? Not Jupiter or Mars or Saturn. Mercury is never that obvious, and you are standing on the Earth, so that leaves Venus. Venus far outshines Jupiter, but it is no match for Moon, which will appear close by on the morning of April 25.

With all these planets in the sky, how can you tell the difference between a planet and the stars? An easy way is to remember – usually, stars twinkle, and planets don’t. If you see a steady, star-like object that isn’t twinkling, it’s probably a planet.

If the sky is clear on the evenings of April 21 and 22, you might get to see a meteor from the Lyrid meteor shower. They are called Lyrids because the meteors appear to emanate from the constellation Lyra the harp, but they can be seen anywhere in the sky. Under the best conditions, you could see as many as twenty meteors per hour.

Your chances of seeing any meteors will depend on how dark and clear your observing area is, and your patience. Most meteor showers are best after midnight, but meteors can appear any time of the evening. This meteor shower won’t be good for very long past midnight, because a bright Moon rises about 1 a.m., spoiling the view with its glaring light.

No special equipment is needed to watch for meteors. Just face east, lean back or lie down, and gaze across the eastern sky. Maybe you’ll see a fast moving meteor flash across the sky.

Mars at Night is Big and Bright…

Mars is usually not very bright in the sky. It may be Earth’s neighbor, but it’s half the size of our planet, and by Jupiter’s standards, it’s positively tiny. But this month we get a good look at the red planet.

Earth is currently passing Mars, which is moving in a slower orbit. The two planets will be closest to one another on April 14 at a distance of just 57 million miles (91.7 million km). They won’t be this close again until May 2016.

Don’t worry about going out on the exact date. Mars will be bright for several weeks before and after closest approach. Besides, a bright, nearly-full Moon will sit beside Mars on April 14, easily outshining it all night long.

If the sky is cloudy, and you are longing for Mars, check for updates from the amazing Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers as well as the three other spacecraft currently in orbit. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter is scheduled to arrive in September 2014.

Star Parties

The next free public star party is Saturday, April 5, at the Cornelia Fort Airpark from 7:30 to 9:30 pm. Members of the Barnard-Seyfert Astronomical Society set up their telescopes so everyone who attends can observe the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades star cluster, and more. This is great fun for all ages.

Star parties are weather dependent and may be cancelled. Visit our web site for updates before making the trip, especially if the weather is iffy. There, you’ll also find star party tips, driving directions, and a calendar of future events.