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.

Turning the tide on power: Could we get energy from the Moon?

The Moon has captured man’s imagination from the beginning. Unlike the Sun, it is easy to gaze upon, and unlike the stars and wandering stars, it appears close. Despite classical Greek philosophy, it turned out to be our nearest celestial neighbor.

The Moon is a powerful symbol. But did you know it’s a place from which we could get power?

Courtesy of Texas A&M Engineering Works

Courtesy of Texas A&M Engineering Works

When typing in “moon power” on Google, you get a lot of very interesting and silly responses. For example one of the top results is the Tumblr page for the Sailor Moon franchise. And while it’s exciting to have celestially-powered superwomen, I don’t think we’ll get much usable power out of them.

Thankfully, we’ve been able to use the Moon to generate electricity since 1966. That sounds very much like something of a science fiction plot, but it’s science fact that we’ve harnessed the gravitational effect of the Moon — or, as you might have heard of it, we use the movement of the tides through a turbine to create electricity.

In 1966, the first (and largest) tidal generation station opened in France on the Rance River. It’s still in operation today and produces about 540 gigawatts annually. There are only seven operational tidal power stations in the world, and none in the United States. Tidal power stations, much like dams, have the power to significantly alter the ecology of their area.

But when most people think of “moon power,” they think of actually being on the Moon. The Moon does have a couple of different great energy-rich resources. One of those resources is Helium 3. Helium 3 is an isotope of Helium, meaning that it has more neutrons than regular Helium. While Helium 3 is inert when buried in the regolith, it could be a great fuel for a fusion reactor.

Slam two molecules of Helium 3 together and you get a proton, Helium 4 (what we find on Earth). You can use that escaping proton to generate electricity. And it’s not radioactive. There’s enough on the Moon to give over a century worth of power.

However, there are two large challenges. The first challenge is creating a fusion reactor that can use the fuel, use it for sustained periods, and produce more energy than it uses. The second challenge is creating the infrastructure to mine the Moon. No one’s been there in over 40 years, and only a handful of robotic probes have been sent there. So it’s been a while since we’ve been up there or tried to bring some of the moon back.

We could build a moon base, station people there to mine the moon, and send back the Helium 3. We could create a totally automatic system to do it — but how long would it take to put either system in place? Decades, at the very least. And why would you start on a mining operation before you have a need for what you mine?

The Moon’s other great resource is sunlight. That seems an odd thing to say, but the whole reason we notice it in the first place is the sunlight it reflects on us. Unencumbered by atmosphere or people, it would be a wonderful place to put a large-scale solar power generation plant. We know massive amounts of sunlight would hit the panels without being filtered by the atmosphere.

However, the challenges are about the same as the fusion. There is nothing up there. It would be a massive undertaking to build and transport enough panels that distance.

There is technology — in its infancy — that could take care of that problem: 3D printing. Have a 3D printer on wheels land on the moon and get to work. In time, the massive solar array will be built. All the materials are there; we simply need to add direction, much as a conductor adds direction to an orchestra.

And after we have this solar ensemble built, we need to figure out how to get the power safety back home. It would take a huge power cord to run from the Moon to Earth, so we’ll probably try to avoid that option. If we could safely beam it back to power stations across the world, safe, cheap, and clean electricity could be had. Or it could be used as a death ray against those who haven’t paid their bills on time. Before we turn it on, we’ll have to work out how to use it.

That great eye catcher in the night sky is full of temptation. She has given us a taste of her power and has shown that she has more for the taking. If we are smart enough and devoted enough to get to her, she could provide the bounties of the heavens. But for now, she sits just out of reach.

Reporting from Down Under: It’s a solar eclipse shark attack in Australia

I had never realized before that a photograph of a partial solar eclipse behind lots of colorful clouds at sunrise looks so much like a shark attack. Especially if you’re watching it over the Pacific Ocean with about 40,000 other people in Cairns, Australia.

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See the fin?

In my nine eclipse expeditions, I have never seen these unique atmospheric conditions before. Traditional knowledge suggests it’s best if your solar eclipse view is cloudless, with the sun’s corona surrounding the moon’s black disk at totality. But if clouds spoil that view, I discovered that dramatic images can hide in the cloud decks, especially if the clouds are thick enough to filter the sun’s light (effective neutral density of four or greater) and allow a camera to capture images without a solar filter. (Safety note: We kept solar filters ready at a moment’s notice if conditions improved. We also viewed only through the LED display of the digital camera, not through the viewfinder.)

The museum’s solar eclipse travelers had a front row seat from the balcony of their rooms on the 11th floor of our Australia hotel. Boats had anchored in the harbor below us, and eclipse watchers camped on the boardwalk by the water. The event became a dynamic interplay of clouds and the partially eclipsed sun. Sunrise began with decks of clouds drifting between the sun and us. We aimed cameras mounted on telescopes to the place where we knew the sun would appear when the clouds parted.

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The view from out hotel balcony at 6 a.m., when the sun was just clearing the peninsula’s tallest peaks. The Takahashi FCT-76 is on the left and the FS-60 is on the right, riding on a Sky Patrol equatorial mount.

Rays of sunlight through cloud decks also showed the sun’s location. As the beams moved across the land, we knew it would soon be our turn to see through a tiny thinning of the clouds just before totality. As totality approached, the sky gradually darkened and the temperature dropped. The city lights below us had just turned off at sunrise and now flickered back to life. Flash bulbs blinked over the city as photographers hoped in vain to light a path through the clouds. For the two minutes of totality, the rays of sunlight vanished, the clouds became black shadows and a sunrise glow illuminated the horizon. Then daylight returned, and we looked to see if our cameras had captured anything our eyes had missed. That’s when we discovered the shark fin shapes of the partially eclipsed sun appearing to sail behind a fantastic display of pale hued clouds. Did we have the best view of totality? Maybe not. But in the interplay of thick colorful cloud decks, we were treated to a very rare unfiltered solar eclipse at sunrise.

Photographs tell the story better:

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Here I’m focusing the Celestron 5 telescope. Next to me is the Takahashi FCT-76 and the Takahashi FS-60 is closest to the camera.

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At about 6:20 a.m., the partially eclipsed sun peeks through the clouds. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

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The shark’s fin is the sun’s disk, partially covered by the moon and by several banks of Earth clouds. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

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At about 6:25 a.m., totality is just over 10 minutes away. The colors become more dramatic as the sunlight level drops. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

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The camera cuts off most of this shark fin, but notice the sunrise colors lingering in the clouds. Photography through a Takahashi FCT-76.

Total Eclipse of the HeartAt about 6:30 a.m., the clouds and colors become dramatic as totality nears.
Photography through the Takahashi FS-60 at 600 mm focal length.

Total Eclipse of the HeartFour and a half minutes later, as totality approaches, the clouds darken, with only the closest illuminated by the last rays of the sun’s photosphere and perhaps the first faint glows of the corona. Photography through the Takahashi FS-60 at 600 mm focal length

Total Eclipse of the HeartAt 6:38 a.m., totality began and the clouds obscured the fainter corona. The sky became as dark as a full moon night with sunrise colors streamed across the horizon.