Stay up late for a great cosmic show: The first eclipse of April 2014 is tonight!

Don’t forget: there’s a lunar eclipse tonight! The eclipse will begin shortly before midnight and continue until 4:30 in the morning on April 15. You’ll be able to see the eclipse from just about everywhere in Houston, but especially well at the George Observatory, where you can watch through telescopes away from city lights.

We’ve been getting a lot of people asking, “What exactly is a lunar eclipse?” Well, a lunar eclipse is when the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, or umbra. For this to happen, the Sun, Earth, and Moon have to be perfectly aligned.

For those who have never seen an eclipse, it is quite breathtaking. The Moon will start out full. As it rises, it will reach the edge of the umbra shortly before midnight, where it will begin to disappear. As the Moon continues to rise, it will slowly be engulfed by the Earth’s shadow. Then, as it sets, the Moon will slowly reappear until it is full again (roughly around 4:30 in the morning).

Since this a total eclipse, it can be viewed anywhere in the world that is facing away from the Sun. You can sit outside, even in the city, and view the eclipse yourself.

However, the George Observatory will be open all night to the public tonight. For $5 per person, you can enjoy our three large telescopes. Then, once the eclipse begins, relax on our deck and watch the eclipse with our astronomers. Besides the Moon, Mars will also be visible (we’ve just passed opposition, so tonight’s a really a great chance to see the red planet, as it’s much brighter than usual).

Want to know more about the Moon while you gaze up at it tonight? This great video from Live Science goes through the history of the formation of the Moon and how it got some of its most famous features!

The ‘blood moon’ in Houston: Stay up late at the George for a stunning celestial show

A total eclipse of the Moon will occur very early Tuesday morning, April 15. Houstonians will be able to see the whole event, which begins just before 1 a.m. You’ll be able to see the evening’s cosmic events unfold even under city lights, but if you’d like a more detailed (and dare I say captivating) look at the eclipse, the George Observatory will be open all night long!

Lunar eclipses occur when the full Moon moves into the Earth’s shadow. The first part of the Earth’s shadow that the Moon will encounter is the penumbra. The penumbral shadow’s faintness means that sharp-eyed observers will notice only a slight dimming of the Moon between 11:55 p.m. on Monday night and 12:58 a.m. Tuesday. The Moon moves into the darkest part of the earth’s shadow, the umbra, at 12:58 a.m., and will be totally eclipsed by 2:06 a.m.

The Moon’s brightness during a total eclipse depends on the amount of dust particles in the atmosphere. A large amount of dust from a volcanic eruption, for example, can make the totally eclipsed Moon almost invisible.

With little dust in our atmosphere, the Moon glows reddish-orange during totality.

This is because only the Sun’s red light comes through the Earth’s atmosphere and falls on the Moon even while it is in the Earth’s shadow. As the diagram shows, the Moon will pass through the southern part of the shadow, for about 78 minutes of totality. As a result, the northern limb, closer to the center of Earth’s shadow, will appear darker.

We’ll see our next total lunar eclipse in Houston just before dawn on October 8, 2014 (the second of four occurring between 2014 and 2015!).

For more on how lunar eclipses work, watch the video below from NASA and USA Today.

The planet Mars at night is big and bright, deep in the heart of April

Editor’s note: Press play on the SoundCloud track to really get in the Mars mood while you read.

April is the best month in 2014 to see our blushing cosmic neighbor, Mars! And you’ll definitely want to make a trip out to the George Observatory this Saturday for a Mars Viewing Party from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Take a peek at the marvelous Red Planet while you make the best of this opportunity away from city lights, using some great equipment among cheery fellow astro-enthusiasts.

But what makes April 2014 so special? Here are some reasons (and dates) to make sure you take advantage of the best viewing opportunities:

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU

On April 8, Mars reaches opposition, something that only happens every 26 months. This means that Earth (and therefore you and me) will be right in between the Sun and Mars. This creates some great viewing opportunities, since Mars rises as the Sun sets and will be up all night long.

SO CLOSE YOU CAN TASTE IT

Because of their elliptical orbits, Earth and Mars will be at their closest on April 14. If the planets’ orbits were perfectly circular, they would always reach their closest points at opposition. However, since Mars’ orbit is more eccentric (more egg-shaped, less circular) than Earth’s, this point of closest approach is happening just after opposition.

The closer we are to an object in space, the bigger and brighter it appears to us. So as we approach our closest point to Mars, the planet’s luminosity (brightness) will appear to increase.

WANDERING STARS

The word planet derives from the ancient Greek word for “wandering star.” This apparent “wandering,” or retrograde motion, happens whenever Earth reaches opposition with an outer planet, and then passes it due to our orbit closer to the sun. As we approach and then pass Mars, it will appear to move backward in the sky in relation to the stars behind it, then continue on its regular path across the sky.

This retrograde motion was one of the first reasons people began to question the Earth-centered model of the universe. If Earth was at the center of everything, and stars existed in crystal domes above it, why would these planets move differently? No clear reason was apparent until we realized planets moved in elliptical orbits around the sun.

So if you keep your eye on Mars this month, you will have the chance to see one of the earliest questions in astronomy for what it really is – and that’s really awesome.

Mapping of Mars’ retrograde motion from Earth’s point of view

For the best chance to catch a glimpse of Mars, make sure you come out to the George Observatory this Saturday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.!

 

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Mars and the Moon share the limelight

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on April 1, 9 pm CDT on April 15, and dusk on April 30.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.  Jupiter is high in the west in Gemini, the Twins. Below them, Dazzling Orion, the Hunter sets with Taurus, the Bull.  To Orion’s left are the two Dog Stars—little dog Procyon and big dog Sirius.  Sirius outshines all other stars we see at night.  The Big Dipper is high in the north. Leo, the Lion, is high in the south. These stars, along with Arcturus, announce the spring.  Mars is up all night long this month.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on April 1, 9 p.m. CDT on April 15, and dusk on April 30. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter is high in the west in Gemini the Twins. Below them, Dazzling Orion the Hunter sits with Taurus the Bull. To Orion’s left are the two Dog Stars: little dog Procyon and big dog Sirius. Sirius outshines all other stars we see at night. The Big Dipper is high in the north. Leo the Lion, is high in the south. These stars, along with Arcturus, announce the spring. Mars is up all night long this month.

This month, Jupiter remains well placed for evening observing all spring. Look for it high in the west at dusk.

Mars is up virtually all night long this month. On April 8, Earth passes between the Sun and Mars. This places Mars at opposition, an alignment where we see Mars rise at dusk and set at dawn — Mars is up literally all night long. It turns out that Mars is farther from the Sun than average when Earth passes it, so at this opposition Mars is not as big or bright as in years past. Still, Mars now rivals the brightest star at night, Sirius, and is now as bright as it will get until May 2016.

Saturn remains in the pre-dawn sky. Face south right before sunup to see it. You can also begin observing Saturn in late evening. It rises just after 10:30 p.m. tonight, and then about a half hour earlier each night until by month’s end, it’s up until twilight. Saturn comes to opposition next month.

Venus remains in the morning sky. Look southeast at dawn for the brightest point of light there; only the Sun and Moon outshine Venus. Venus remains a morning star for almost all of 2014.

Brilliant winter stars shift towards the west during April. Dazzling Orion is high in the southwest at dusk. His three-starred belt is halfway between reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel. Orion’s belt points right to Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull. Above Orion are the twin stars Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini the Twins. Jupiter is among the Twins this month. You can find Sirius, the brightest star we ever see at night, by drawing a line south from Orion’s belt (left as you face west). Forming a triangle with Betelgeuse and Sirius is Procyon the Little Dog Star.

Joining the winter stars are stars of spring in the south and east. Look for Leo the Lion almost overhead at dusk. In the east, extend the Big Dipper’s handle to “arc to Arcturus” and then “speed on to Spica.”

Moon Phases in April 2014:

1st Quarter: April 7, 3:31 a.m.
Full: April 15, 2:44 a.m.
Last Quarter: April 22, 2:52 a.m.
New: April 29, 1:17 a.m.

The Full Moon of Tuesday morning, April 15, fully enters the Moon’s shadow, causing a total eclipse of the Moon. The Moon first encounters the shadow at 12:58 a.m.; that’s when the partial phases begin. By 2:06 a.m., the Moon is all the way inside the shadow, and thus totally eclipsed. The Moon takes 78 minutes to cross the shadow, so totality lasts until 3:24 a.m.. The Moon then emerges from the Earth’s shadow until the eclipse is over at 4:33 a.m.

Keep in mind that the eclipse happens in the morning hours of Tues., April 15. Don’t go out looking for this Tuesday night! Our George Observatory will be open from sundown Mon., April 14 until dawn on Tues., April 15 for observing the eclipse. If you can’t come to the George at such early morning hours, remember that anyone who sees the Moon sees the eclipse. You can observe this eclipse from your backyard or even through your window if you have one that faces south/southwest.

The only thing that can stop you from seeing the eclipse is overcast weather. If we do get clouded out, or if you can’t get up in the middle of the night, we can observe another eclipse on Oct. 8, 2014, right before dawn.

Click here to see the HMNS Planetarium Schedule

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

Clear skies!