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.!

 

The galaxy just got bigger: Calling all future space explorers to Family Space Day!

ATTENTION FUTURE SPACE EXPLORERS: NASA has just discovered 715 new planets for you to study and learn.

But let’s back up a second.

Launched in 2009, the Kepler space observatory has been scanning the heavens for earth-like exoplanets — planets existing outside our solar system. The observatory has been able to detect strong possibilities of planets, but they needed confirmation. Mountains of data have been sent to scientists on the ground to confirm the existence of these exoplanets.

While this process has been grueling and slow going, it resulted in several hundred confirmations. However, yesterday NASA announced the discovery of 715 new planets orbiting 305 stars — boosting the number of verified exoplanets by 70%.

Kepler has collected this data by detecting the transit of planets across their stars. When planets transit (i.e., cross in front of) a star, the star’s brightness appears to dim by a small amount. The amount of dimming depends on the size of the star and object revolving around it. This process can give false-positives, however, which has necessitated that the data be confirmed by scientists on the ground.

So what’s changed?

The way scientists were sifting through the data has changed. You see, it’s much easier to confirm the existence of planets when they are part of a multi-planet system. Readings that indicate multi-planet systems exist are difficult to explain as anything other than a multi-planet system — as opposed to single planet systems that could be explained by other phenomena. Therefore, by focusing on the data from what appeared to be multi-planet systems, scientists have been able to sift through and confirm the data at a much more rapid pace.

So what’s out there?

Ninety-four percent of the planets discovered are smaller than Neptune (that is, they’re four times larger than Earth or smaller). The number of planets with 2R (double the Earth’s radius) or less has increased 1,000 percent. Our total count of exoplanets now stands at 1,700 — which NASA planetary scientist Jack Lissaur has described as a “veritable bonanza of new worlds.”

So if you’ve got a future space explorer in your family, there’s never been a better time to get excited about space adventures — just in time for our Family Space Day at the George Observatory this Saturday.

Experience what it’s really like to be an astronaut-in-training with a simulated mission. Volunteers from NASA will guide you and your family on your mission — ensuring safe travels — as you transform into astronauts, scientists and engineers flying through space.

A perfect activity for the whole family, the flight simulation is open to adults and children 7 years and older (children ages 7 to 9 must be accompanied by a chaperone), and a minimum of 10 participants per mission is required.

Don’t miss this chance to participate in real astronaut training at the George Observatory! Click here or call (281) 242-3055 for details.