Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Lunar Eclipse on April 4

april stars

Mars remains in the west at dusk this month as it moves through Aries. Mars continues to fade a little each night as Earth continues to leave it farther behind. Later on this month, Mars begins to be lost in the glare of the Sun.

Mercury enters the evening sky as Mars leaves it. By April 30, Mars will be gone but Mercury will be low in the west northwest, near the Pleiades star cluster.

Venus is in the west at dusk. Look over the point of sunset for the brightest thing there.

Jupiter is now high in the sky, almost overhead, as soon as night falls. Jupiter outshines all stars we ever see at night, so it will be obvious when you look up at dusk.

Saturn is in the southwest at dawn.

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 from Orion’s belt towards south (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 2015:

Full April 5, 7:05 am

Last Quarter April 11, 10:44 pm

New April 18, 1:56 pm

1st Quarter April 25, 5:55 pm

The Full Moon of April 4 passes through the Earth’s shadow, causing a total lunar eclipse. Unfortunately, the Moon clips the edge of the Earth’s shadow, allowing for only 5 minutes of totality. What’s more, for us the eclipse occurs near moonset and sunrise (which are almost simultaneous when there is a lunar eclipse). That puts the Moon low to the horizon during the eclipse; only those with clear views all the way to the western horizon can get a good look. It also means that totality falls during morning twilight.

Eclipse times:

Partial eclipse begins: 5:15 am
Totality 6:57-7:02 am
Moonset (still partially eclipsed) 7:13 am

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.

There’s a Partial Solar Eclipse Happening October 23: Here’s what you need to know to see it!


There’s a partial solar eclipse happening Thursday, October 23 and you can see it all from Houston*!

 The New Moon of Thursday, October 23, 2014, aligns with the Sun and the Earth well enough to cast its shadow towards Earth. However, no one will see a total eclipse for two reasons. First of all, the Moon was at apogee (greatest distance from Earth) on October 18, and is therefore smaller than usual in our sky. As a result, it is not quite big enough to cover the Sun, and the only eclipse possible would be an annular eclipse. Also, the Moon shadow is aligned to a point in space just over the Earth’s upper limb, so nobody will even get to see an annular eclipse. The near miss, however, allows the penumbra, where the Moon partially blocks the Sun, to land on the Earth. With North America near the upper limb of the Earth at the time, Houston will be within the penumbra. Therefore we will see a partial solar eclipse, in which the Moon will cover almost a quarter of the Sun’s disk at most.


At 4:59pm CDT, look for the Moon to take a ‘bite’ out of the Sun’s disk. The Moon covers the northern limb of the Sun, which is the right side of the Sun as it sets in the west. Maximum eclipse, with the Moon covering almost 1/4 of the Sun’s disk, is at 5:58.  At 6:43, the Sun sets while still in partial eclipse. After this, the next partial solar eclipse visible from Houston occurs August 21, 2017. 


Eclipse begins: 4:59 PM, CDT
Mid-eclipse: 5:58 PM
Sunset: 6:43 PM

The Museum’s own George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park will be open to the public from 1:00 -6:00 p.m. on October 23 for observing the Sun and, starting at 5:00, the eclipse.  

*CAUTION: Never look directly at the Sun with the naked eye or through an unfiltered telescope. Permanent eye-damage will result. 

Blood Moon Strikes Back! Total Lunar Eclipse Wednesday, October 8!

A total eclipse of the Moon will occur early Wednesday morning, October 8. Houstonians will be able to see virtually the whole event, which happens right before dawn.

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 3:14 AM and 4:15 AM. The Moon moves into the darkest part of the earth’s shadow, the umbra, at 4:15 AM, and will be totally eclipsed by 5:24 AM. Totality lasts until 6:25, at which time the Moon has crossed the shadow and begun emerging from the other side. The Moon is still emerging from the shadow (and thus still partially eclipsed) as it sets at 7:26.  Note that this eclipse happens close to dawn, which is when a Full Moon is about to set. Therefore, you’ll need an observing site clear of obstacles to the west so you can watch the setting Moon in eclipse.  (That’s why we’re not observing from George Observatory, as we have in the past. Our tree line would interfere with the view).

Eclipse Diagram - James Wooten

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 northern part of the shadow, for about an hour of totality. As a result, the southern limb, closer to the center of Earth’s shadow, will appear darker.  And since we’ll be watching the Moon set in the west, the northern limb will be to the right and the southern limb to the left.

This is the second of four consecutive total lunar eclipses in 2014 and 2015, all of which are visible in the USA.  We’ll see our next total lunar eclipse in Houston just before dawn on April 4, 2015.


Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Two eclipses for the price of one!

Star Chart - October 2014

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on September 1, 9 pm CDT on September 15, and dusk on September 30. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. The Summer Triangle is high in the west. This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila. The ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius sets in the southwest, with Mars to its right. Pegasus, the Flying Horse, is high in the east. To the south and east, we see a vast dim area of stars known as the Celestial Sea, where only Fomalhaut stands out.

This month, Mars remains in the southwest at dusk this month as it pulls away from Antares in Scorpius. Mars continues to fade a little each night as Earth continues to leave it farther behind

Saturn drops into the Sun’s glare by Halloween. See how long you can keep track of it as it appears lower and lower to the southwest horizon each night this month.

Jupiter is now higher in the east at dawn; it is the brightest thing there. 

Venus is passing behind the Sun and thus out of sight this month. Superior conjunction (Venus in line with the Sun, on the far side of the Sun) is on October 25.

In October the Big Dipper is to the lower left of the North Star at dusk, and soon sets. As a result, it may be hard to see if you have trees or buildings north of you. As the Big Dipper sets, though, Cassiopeia rises. This is a pattern of five stars in a distinct W shape which lies directly across the North Star from the Big Dipper. Look for Cassiopeia high in the north on fall and winter evenings.  

Autumn represents sort of an ‘intermission’ in the sky, with bright summer stars setting at dusk, while bright winter stars such as Orion have not yet risen.  The ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius sets in the southwest early in the evening. The Summer Triangle is high in the west. Meanwhile, the Great Square of Pegasus is in the east, indicating that autumn has begun. The stars rising in the east are much dimmer than those overhead and in the southwest because when you face east at dusk in October, you face out of the Milky Way plane. The center of our Galaxy lies between Scorpius and Sagittarius, while the Summer Triangle is also in the galactic plane. Pegasus, on the other hand, is outside the plane of our galaxy and is a good place to look for other galaxies. Nearby constellations Andromeda and Triangulum (a small triangle) contain the spiral galaxies nearest to our own. 

Total Lunar Eclipse October 8 + Partial Solar Eclipse October 23!
The Full Moon of October 8 enters Earth’s shadow completely, causing a total lunar eclipse!  Partial eclipse begins at 4:15 am, with totality from 5:24 to 6:25 am. The Moon then begins to leave the shadow, but is still partially eclipsed as it sets at 7:26 in Houston. This is the second of four total eclipses we can see in 2014-15; the next one occurs April 4, 2015.

The New Moon of October 23 partially blocks the Sun, causing a partial solar eclipse!  For us, the eclipse begins at 5:00 and is still in progress at sunset (6:43 pm). For both eclipses you’ll need a site with a clear view to the west to watch the setting Moon or Sun in eclipse. 

Moon Phases in October 2014:
First Quarter: October 1, 2:32 pm; October 30, 9:48 pm
Full: October 8, 5:50 am
Last Quarter: October 15, 2:12 pm
New: October 23, 4:55 pm 

Celebrate The George October 10-12!
The George Observatory celebrates its 25th anniversary the weekend of October 10-12!  That weekend, the observatory is open for a members event on Friday evening and Sunday night in addition to our customary Saturday night hours

Click here for the Burke Baker 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.