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.

Monarchs want YOU to plant milkweed: Butterfly-friendly plants for sale at HMNS

The butterflies need your help! With urbanization, and a host of other factors, monarch butterflies are at risk of not finding places to lay their eggs. So why not help while improving the butterfly traffic through your garden with a butterfly-seducing plant from our biannual plant sale?

Milkweed plants in the genus Asclepias are extremely important for butterflies, especially monarchs. While the blooms provide copious amounts of nectar for many different butterflies, the foliage is an essential part of the monarch butterfly’s life cycle. Milkweeds are the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat. In other words, they can’t live without it!

Native milkweed plants grow along roadsides and in open fields. The butterflies find them by honing in on their volatile chemicals and finally locate the exact plant by “tasting” nearby plants with special receptors called chemoreceptors on their feet. Once a gravid female (one who has mated and is ready to lay eggs) finds a good milkweed plant, she will lay eggs on it — and the miraculous process of metamorphosis has begun!

There are about 100 species of Asclepias in the United States, and over 30 in Texas — but monarchs seem to prefer some of them over others. According to a study by Linda S. Rayor, described in The Monarch Butterfly: Biology and Conservation, when given a choice, monarchs prefer to lay eggs on other species of milkweed over the native species Asclepias tuberosa.

Butterfly - Tropical Milkweed

Besides being a host plant for Monarch larvae, Tropical Milkweed (A. curassavica) is a great nectar source for many butterfly species!

Why? Different Asclepias species contain different cardenolide concentrations (cardenolides are the chemicals in the milkweed leaves that taste bitter). As they eat, the caterpillars store these toxic chemicals in their bodies and thus become distasteful to their predators. A. tuberosa has been found to contain low amounts of cardenolides compared to most other species of milkweed. Although it is unclear how monarchs “know” this, they do not usually use A. tuberosa as a host plant.

Several other native milkweed species, however, are great host plants for the monarch. Asclepias asperula (Antelope Horns), A. viridis (Green Milkweed), A. incarnata (Swamp Milkweed) and A. oenotheroides (Zizotes Milkweed) are some of the more commonly found milkweed plants in our area that monarchs use as host plants.

Unfortunately, most of the native milkweeds are hard to find in plant nurseries. One reason is that their seeds require moist stratification to germinate, and even with this pretreatment, germination can be splotchy. Furthermore, young plants of A. asperula, viridis and oenotheroides take several seasons to establish their thick taproots, and can be hard to transplant.

On the bright side, most of the native milkweeds, except for A. incarnata, are drought tolerant and can handle being mowed. Swamp milkweed obviously likes moist soil. All milkweeds grow best in full sun.

Butterfly - Green Milkweed

Asclepias viridis, Green Milkweed

Most gardeners are familiar with tropical milkweed, or Asclepias curassavica. This plant is commonly available in local plant nurseries and attracts butterflies like a magnet! Its bright orange and gold flowers are irresistible to many butterflies, and the high levels of cardenolides in its foliage make it especially sought out by female monarchs looking for a place to lay their eggs. Although it originates in more tropical climes, it is relatively cold hardy and will usually come back from the base of the plant after a freeze. It is also easy to propagate from seed, and in fact will sometimes seed out (make more of itself) in a garden.

So tropical milkweed seems like the ideal plant. However, one issue with this species is that it is not native to our area and does not exhibit the same characteristics of our native milkweeds, all of which die back to the ground in winter. This perennial habit seems advantageous, but it can be a problem for a couple of reasons. Because it has leaves year-round, it may encourage monarchs to overwinter locally instead of migrating to Mexico. It can serve as a host for a disease that affects monarchs, called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or simply O.e. This disease is caused by a protozoan parasite and is spread in the dormant stage of its lifecycle as a tiny spore.

These spores are typically on the abdomen of an infected monarch butterfly and can be spread to her eggs or onto the milkweed plants themselves when a female lays eggs. Then, when the caterpillars hatch out of the eggs, they consume the spores that lie on their empty egg shells or on the leaves around the egg and become infected.

Over a few generations, the parasite load can build up to high enough levels that it impacts the butterfly’s survival. Depending on the severity of the infection, the disease can make the caterpillars look a bit grayish and their stripes not as distinct. When the caterpillars pupate, their chrysalis may look brownish or spotted. The butterfly inside may emerge but have problems, such as an enlarged, gray abdomen and weak, faded wings.

Sometimes they emerge and look healthy, but secretly harbor O.e. spores on their abdomens. Other times they don’t emerge from the chrysalis at all, or get stuck while trying to come out.

So what is my point? I thought we were talking about milkweed plants! ;-) The reason this is important is because O.e. spores persist on the leaves of the tropical milkweed plants, waiting for an unsuspecting caterpillar to munch them up. To break this cycle, we recommend cutting your tropical milkweed plants back after a monarch generation has stripped their leaves, especially in the spring and fall. A simple pruning of the plant’s stems about six inches from the ground will get rid of any remaining spores and will sprout new growth in no time.

Some other closely related plants that monarchs will use as a host are Gomphocarpus physocarpus or “family jewels” milkweed, and a species of Funastrum or twinevine. Gomphocarpus is a lot like A. curassavica in that it doesn’t lose its leaves in the winter so it also needs to be cut back periodically to keep it from spreading O.e.

Butterfly - Funastrum cynanchoidies flower

Funastrum cynanchoidies flower

Funastrum or twinevine is an interesting climbing plant native to south Texas and Mexico. The plant is not very impressive looking until the summer, when it puts on beautiful balls of milkweed-like flowers that are great nectar sources for many kinds of butterfly. Another good thing about it is that when monarch caterpillars have stripped all your milkweed plants of their leaves and are still hungry, they will eat the leaves of Funastrum.

With their habitat dwindling due to urbanization, the use of Round Up ready crops, shrinking right-of-ways due to intensive agricultural practices and other factors, monarch butterflies need all the help they can get. The take-home message today is PLANT MORE MILKWEED! (please)

For milkweed and other awesome butterfly host and nectar plants, come visit us at our biannual Spring Plant Sale on Saturday, April 5th from 9 a.m. until we sell out! We are located on the 7th level of the Museum parking garage. Parking is free if you spend $30 or more!

Come early, the plants go fast!

Science Hack Day Houston and what it means to you! Coming to HMNS April 5th & 6th

So you skipped signing up for Hack Day this year but you want to know more about it, or perhaps you’re just a visitor at HMNS for the day and wonder what “Science Hack Day” is all about. What will they be coming up with? What does it look like when a group of skilled, creative, scientific minds get together and “hack” for 24 hours!? Well, we encourage you to come and see it with your own eyes!

Science Hack Day Houston - Bightwork CoReasearch - HMNS 5Here’s the official website for Science Hack Day Houston: sciencehackdayhouston.com

A really unique feature of this Hack Day event is that, while visitors cannot just show up in the middle of the event and be a part of the hacking*, anyone can see the Hackers in Action in Glassell Hall during regular business hours on Saturday, April 5th until 1:37 on Sunday, April 6th and join us for the unveiling of their “hacks” at 2 p.m. on Sunday! Each group will have a few minutes to present what they came up with and you could very well be witnessing the first steps toward an amazing new product everyone will be wanting in 5 years or medical breakthroughs that change the face of healthcare!

So you might know the old saying, “When you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” Well, we are wondering what can be accomplished when we put many minds together!

Come join us for Hack Day and find out!

If you have to miss Hack Day but want to know more about independent research happening right here in Houston near the Museum District? Check out our Hack Day organizers, Brightwork Coresearch brightworkcoresearch.com

Follow HMNS on Twitter and Instagram and share your Science Hack Day Houston experience! Be sure to include #SHDHou #hackdayhou @hmns @scihackdayhou

*Applications were accepted through Brightwork co-research’s website to select participants with the best mix of skills and interests for a productive Hack Day.

Science Hack Day Houston - Brightwork CoResearch - HMNS 4

Science Hack Day Houston - Brightwork CoResearch - HMNS

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.!