Once in a Red Supermoon: Watch Sunday’s rare lunar eclipse at the George Observatory

Our moon goes by many different names depending on the season and its position relative to the Earth. The evening of Sunday, Sept. 27, it will become three identities at once, an exceptionally rare occurrence. For the first time in 33 years, Earth will witness a total eclipse of the moon at its perigee near the autumnal equinox: a blood moon, a supermoon and a harvest moon combined. You can watch the eclipse of historic proportions anywhere on the planet where the moon is visible, but at the George Observatory, you can learn about eclipses while you catch it in action.

Houstonians will be able to see the whole event, which begins right as twilight ends. Lunar eclipses occur when the full moon moves into the Earth’s shadow. The first part of the Earth’s shadow the moon will encounter is called the penumbra. For our area, sharp-eyed observers will notice only a slight dimming of the moon between 7:10 p.m. and 8:07 p.m. Central Daylight Time (CDT). The moon moves into the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow, the umbra, at 8:07 p.m., and will be totally eclipsed by 9:10 p.m. Totality will last until 10:24 p.m. The moon will then exit the umbra and leave it completely by 11:27 p.m., when the eclipse ends.

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This diagram displays the movement of the moon through Earth’s shadow during the total eclipse. Times are shown in Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). For times in CDT, our time zone, subtract an hour.

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 passes through the southern part of the shadow, for 74 minutes of totality. As a result, the northern limb, closer to the center of Earth’s shadow, will appear darker.

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Sunlight refracted through Earth’s atmosphere gives the moon its red color during a total lunar eclipse, also called a blood moon by many. This is the same red light you see at sunrise and sunset, but from the moon’s perspective. If you were standing on the moon during the eclipse, you would see a dark Earth ringed in a glowing halo of red.

You may have heard that this is a “supermoon eclipse.” That’s because this full moon happens less than one hour after the moon makes its closest approach to the Earth, called perigee. What’s more, this is the closest perigee of the year, 145 km closer than on Feb. 19.  At perigee, the moon is the biggest it can get in our sky, though the difference is only slight. Your pinky held at arm’s length still covers it up!

A supermoon eclipse is a rare phenomenon. The last one occurred in 1982, and there have been only five since 1900. After Sunday, the next one will occur in 2033. Compare this to a blue moon, or two full moons occurring in a month. The last blue moon occurred this year on July 31, and prior to that, on Sept. 30, 2012. Perhaps we should revise the phrase “once in a blue moon” to “once in a red supermoon.”

We can also call this a harvest moon since it’s the full moon closest to the fall equinox. Because the moon rises close to sunset for several days before and after the night of the full moon, its light allows harvesters to keep working instead of stopping at sundown. The fall equinox occurred Wednesday, Sept. 23, so this full moon is indeed the harvest moon, which makes this Sunday’s event a “harvest moon eclipse.”

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Our own George Observatory will be open Sunday night from 6 p.m. to midnight specifically for observing the eclipse. Here at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, our Starry Night Express shows in the planetarium will feature the eclipse. We’ll also give a preview of the event before every planetarium show that weekend. If you can’t join us here or at the George, just remember that whoever can see the moon can see the eclipse. You can therefore watch the eclipse from your front or back yard, or even out the window if it faces the right angle! Only overcast skies can stop you from seeing the eclipse. Let’s hope our current trend of clear skies holds through Sunday.

This is the last of four lunar eclipses last year and this year, all total, and all visible from North America. That series ends here; in Houston, we’ll see our next total lunar eclipse at dawn Jan. 31, 2018.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Total Lunar Eclipse this Month

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Saturn is now in the southwestern sky at dusk. It outshines the stars around it, so it’s also easy to see. 

Mars is a little higher in the morning sky this month. Look for it low in the east at dawn. Mars remains dimmer then average, though, and won’t rival the brighter stars until next spring.  

Venus and Jupiter reappear in the morning sky this month. Venus is already visible in the east at dawn; Jupiter will join it after the middle of the month. Venus outshines everything but the Sun and the Moon, while Jupiter is next brightest after Venus. Both, then, easily outshine all the stars we see at night and are clearly visible even in twilight.

Venus, Mars, and Jupiter will come close together in the sky late next month.

The Big Dipper is left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ in the west at dusk. 

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southwest, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left. Saturn is to the right of the scorpion’s head. The Summer Triangle is overhead. The Great Square of Pegasus is now in the east, indicating the approaching fall.

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Moon Phases in September 2015:

Last Quarter: Sept. 5, 4:54 a.m.

New: Sept. 13, 1:41 a.m.

First Quarter: Sept. 21, 3:59 p.m.

Full: Sept. 27, 9:50 p.m.

The Full Moon of September 27 enters the Earth shadow, causing a total lunar eclipse. Partial eclipse begins at 8:07 pm CDT, about an hour after sunset and right as twilight fades. The Moon is totally eclipsed by 9:10. Totality lasts 74 minutes, until 10:24. The Moon then comes out of eclipse until the eclipse is over at 11:27. This is the last of a series of four total lunar eclipses in 2014-2015, all visible from Houston. Unlike the previous three, which occurred at midnight or at dawn, this eclipse takes place in evening hours while everyone is still awake. Remember, whoever can see the Moon can watch the eclipse. Let’s hope the weather cooperates and we can all enjoy it. Our George Observatory will be open Sunday evening, September 27, for this event.

If we miss this eclipse, the next one we can see is at dawn Jan. 31, 2018.

At 3:21 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 23, the Sun is directly overhead at the equator, shifting southwards. This, then, marks the autumnal equinox, the ‘official’ start of fall. On this date (and on the spring equinox in March) everyone on Earth has the same amount of daylight.  After this date, night is longer than day for us and keeps getting longer until our longest night at the winter solstice. Below the equator, day becomes longer than night after this equinox. It is springtime down there. 

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!

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Saturn and Perseid meteors bright in August

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Saturn is now in the south-southwestern sky at dusk. It outshines the stars around it, so it’s also easy to see.

Mars emerges into the morning sky this month. Look for it low in the east at dawn.  Mars remains dimmer then average, though, and won’t rival the brighter stars until next spring.

Venus and Jupiter are in line with the Sun and out of sight this month. Venus emerges into the morning sky fairly quickly, though; try looking for it low in the east at dawn the last week of August.

The Big Dipper is left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the southwest at dusk.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left. Saturn is to the right of the scorpion’s head. The Summer Triangle is almost overhead. The Great Square of Pegasus now rises soon after dusk, indicating that despite this 100 degree heat, autumn is on the way.

 

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Moon Phases in August 2015:

Last Quarter: Aug. 6, 9:03 pm

New: Aug. 14, 9:53 am

First Quarter: Aug. 22, 2:31 pm

Full: Aug. 29, 1:35 pm;

The annual Perseid Meteor Shower peaks every year in mid-August—this year on Aug. 13. Remember that this is a shower, not a storm; you can expect a meteor per minute on average. Also, Earth is actually running into the meteor stream, rather than the meteors running into us. This means that the shower gets better as you get closer to dawn. Our George Observatory will be open late Wednesday night, Aug. 12, until 2 a.m. and Thursday, Aug. 13, for viewing the Perseids. 

For the Planetarium schedule, see www.hmns.org

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. I generally do one such tour on short August evenings.

Clear Skies!

 

HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.

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Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.

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As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.

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Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.

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Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.

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This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.

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These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.

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The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.