Total Lunar Eclipse – April 15

Take a late night break from doing your taxes!

lunareclipse

View an eclipse of the moon on April 15!

April 15 – 2 am. Central Time

In the morning of Tuesday, April 15, the full moon will pass through earth’s shadow producing a total lunar eclipse visible across North America.  Lunar eclipses are perfectly safe to view, and an exciting family event.

The total lunar eclipse phase begins at 02.06 am when the edge of the moon first enters the darkest part of earth’s shadow.  The moon will be completely within the shadow for 78 minutes, ending at 3.34 am.

For people in the United States, this eclipse is the first in an extraordinary series of lunar eclipses in what astronomers call a lunar eclipse tetrad—a series of four consecutive total eclipses occurring at approximately six month intervals. The total eclipse of April 15 will be followed by another on Oct. 8, 2014, and another on April 4, 2015, and another on Sept. 28 2015. All four total eclipses will be visible over most of the U.S.  Although lunar eclipse tetrads are rare, they have frequently occurred in the past and there are nine sets of tetrads occurring during the 21st century.

On average, lunar eclipses occur about twice a year, but not all of them are total. There are three types:

A penumbral eclipse is when the moon passes through the pale outskirts of earth’s shadow. It’s so subtle that sky watchers often don’t notice an eclipse is underway.

A partial eclipse is more dramatic. The moon dips into the core of earth’s shadow, but not all the way, so only a fraction of moon is darkened.

A total eclipse, when the entire moon is shadowed, is best of all. The face of the moon turns sunset-red for up to an hour or more as the eclipse slowly unfolds.

Usually, lunar eclipses come in no particular order. A partial can be followed by a total, followed by a penumbral, and so on. Anything goes. Occasionally, though, the sequence is more orderly. When four consecutive lunar eclipses are all total, the series is called a tetrad.

Weather permitting; this Tuesday’s total eclipse will turn the moon red. Why red?

Total lunar eclipses occur only when the moon passes completely through the shadow of the earth, and if you imagined yourself standing on the dusty lunar surface during just an eclipse and looking up at the sky, the shadow of the earth would completely block out the sun.  You might expect earth seen in this way to be utterly dark, but it’s not. The rim of the planet is on fire! As you scan your eye around earth’s circumference, you’re seeing every sunrise and every sunset in the world, all of them, all at once. This incredible light beams into the heart of earth’s shadow, filling it with a coppery glow and transforming the moon into a great red orb.

Mark your calendar for April 15th and let the tetrad begin.

It’s Time to Look for Orion, the Mighty Hunter

ImageOrion, the hunter, is one of the most popular constellations in the night sky; so you may have already seen him this winter or in late fall. Throughout the year, no matter the season, when I am in schools with our Discovery Dome portable planetarium someone often asks me to point out Orion. The mighty hunter is also one of the largest and easiest constellations to find. Most people find it by locating the three stars that make up Orion’s “belt” which is an asterism or recognizable group of stars that are part of a constellation. The names of the three stars that make up Orion’s belt are Alnitak, Alnilam and Minatka. One of the brightest stars in the sky is on Orion’s right shoulder. It’s called Betelgeuse.

Orion’s belt is the only group of three stars that are spaced so evenly making them very easy to recognize. Once you have found the belt, the hunter easily pops into view especially when it is right overhead during the cold evenings of winter.

Besides being easy to spot, the constellation Orion is also where you will find one of the most beautiful objects in the night sky, the Orion Nebula. Count down to the third bright object in Orion’s sword and you will find not a star but the Orion Nebula. With binoculars focused on this object, you will find many stars rather than one.

So the next time you look for Orion in the night sky be sure to also take a look at the third object in his sword for the giant cloud of gas and dust that makes up this birthplace or stars and solar systems.

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The Orion Nebula from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Credit: NASA

 

The Geminid Meteor Shower

The Geminid Meteor shower occurs each December, and this year we can expect to see up to 50 meteors each hour. Check out this awesome timelapse that I wish I could say I did, but someone else made it…. This timelapse was taken of the Geminids last year over the Pacific Coast.

Meteor showers are caused when Earth passes through the orbital path of a comet, the debris left behind by the comet falls into Earth’s atmosphere creating many shooting stars. The Geminid shower is different. Scientists have determined that this shower occurs when Earth passes through a debris field of an asteroid. This asteroid is called 3200 Phaethon. Observations show that this object is strange indeed, and sometimes behaves similar to a comet. Its orbit brings it in close to the Sun, and then back out again. Jets of dust and gas have been seen spewing from the asteroid at times. Tiny pieces of dust and rock are left behind by 3200 Phaethon as it travels through space, and these cause the Geminid Meteor Shower. The tiny arrows in the image below point to 3200 Phaethon, this image was created by combining multiple images over the span of 20 minutes to show the asteroid’s movement relative to the background stars.

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Meteor showers are named for constellation that their radiant lies in. The radiant is the point from which the meteors appear to radiate from in the sky. The constellation Gemini will rise above the horizon around 9 PM Central Time tonight (December 13th). It will be nearly overhead around 2 AM. This year the moon will also be visible in the sky, which will make it more difficult to see the fainter meteors.

Gemini

While Baton Rouge forecasts are saying rain throughout this evening, some reports indicate that the sky will clear a bit after midnight. Incidentally this is the best time to go out and find meteors! Meteor watching requires patience and sharp eyes, each year the number of meteors changes. Happy viewing!

ISS Celebrates 15 Years in Space- See if you can locate it while looking for Comet ISON

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The connected Zarya and Unity modules after Unity was released from the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s cargo bay.

Fifteen years ago on  Nov. 20, 1998, the Roscosmos (the former Russian Space Agency) launched a Proton rocket that sent the Zarya module into space.  This was the first section of the International Space Station.  Two weeks later on Dec. 4, the United States launched the Unity module making the 2 modules a real international space station.

The ISS is now the third brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon.  If you know where and when to look you can easily see it without a telescope, and NASA’s Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston can tell you when and where.  Log onto Nasa.gov to receive e-mail or text alerts a few hours before the ISS will be passing over your area.  If you sign up soon you might even be able to spot it while “comet hunting” during the Thanksgiving holiday.

Why is Comet ISON Green?…. and other updates

Great news, everyone! Astronomers world wide have confirmed that in the last day or so, ISON has increased in brightness to the point where it is visible to the naked eye. You still have to look closely, as it is still on the border of visibility. Astronomers expect the comet to brighten as it continues to approach the Sun, but no one can know for sure. Through telescopes the green color of the comet is visible.

isongreen

So why is the comet green? It isn’t uncommon for comets to glow green. This is due to the presence of certain chemicals inside the comet that are released as the nucleus sublimates away into space. Most often these chemicals are cyanogen (CN) and diatomic carbon (C2). Both of these chemicals emit greenish-blue light when in a vacuum (like outer space) and exposed to large amounts of energy (which they are getting from the Sun).

Today I came across this awesome interactive website that allows you to track ISON (as well as other Solar System objects) through the sky from different points of view. I’ll be using  it to see where ISON will be over the next view weeks, it also gives you key dates and info. Click the picture below to visit the site:

isonmapapp

Unfortunately for us here in Baton Rouge, the next few days have a lot of clouds in the forecast! There will still be time to view the comet early next week once the sky clears… Between now and November 28 the comet is approaching the Sun. From Earth it will be getting closer and closer to the horizon in the early morning sky. If you can, try and view it before Thanksgiving.  All you have to do is:

1. Wake up very early, around 5:00 AM!

2. Find a place with a clear view of the eastern horizon.

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3. Find the constellation Virgo (outlined in the image above), it will be nearly due east.

4. Look for a faint fuzzy object

5. If you’re feeling up to it, bring the camera out and snap a picture. Click here for a past article about astrophotography tips, it is for a meteor shower, but similar rules apply.

6. While you’re out, don’t miss Saturn, Mercury, and Mars.

Astronomers are unsure of ISON’s fate after it’s close approach to the Sun (which will occur on Thanksgiving Day), it is possible that the Sun’s gravity will cause ISON’s nucleus to break apart. If ISON survives its close encounter with the Sun, it will be visible once again in the morning sky around December 6th. Cross your fingers for ISON’s safe passage around the Sun, and happy viewing!

Backyard Astronomy

Clear November night skies offer several good reasons for bundling up and spending some time stargazing, even when it’s from your backyard. For early morning risers, Comet ISON should reach naked eye brightness toward the end of this month, but until then its visible in small telescopes low in the east-southeast sky before sunrise. ISON passes closest to the Sun on November 28 and is expected to become as bright as the planet Venus.

ISONNov20If you’re having trouble seeing ISON, try looking for the ring planet Saturn, along with the closest planet to the Sun – Mercury, near the horizon. Saturn is a pale, yellowish object that will rise higher in the early morning sky beginning in December and a sight not to be missed if you’re out before sunrise. But the solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter, is a much easier object to locate primarily because it,s big and bright – visible in the east shortly after 8 pm. and high overhead by midnight; it’s the brightest object in the eastern sky. Even throiugh a pair of binoculars, you should be able to observe its four brightest moons and from night to night notice that these tiny moons change position as they orbit Jupiter.
A must see object in the eastern evening fall and winter night sky is the Pleiades star cluster, easily visible even in an urban setting without any optical aid. The cluster is located in the constellation Taurus the Bull and is best when seen through a pair of binoculars.

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Fall and early winter skies are usually clear and less humid, making backyard observing very rewarding, even without binoculars.

Trick or Treat In the Night Sky on Halloween

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As you Trick or Treat down your neighborhood streets take a look in the sky to see who you just might meet!  As you Trick or Treat!  Look up above at the groups of stars in your sky on “Halloween Night” to meet your seasonal constellations.  Constellations can be defined as a group of stars that make an imaginary shapes in the night sky.  They are usually named after mythological characters, people or animals and objects.

Here are a few characters you can look for:

The Winged Horse Pegasus- Four bright stars that form a square.

Princess Andromeda- Andromeda is connected to ” Pegasus” forming a “V”.

King Cepheus: Stars forming an upside down stick figure house.

Queen Cassiopeia- Stars forming the letter “W” .                                                                                    

HAPPY HALLOWEEN !!!!

Lunar Eclipse…Sort Of.

Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse (Photo credit: Peter Neish)

On Friday, 18 October, this month’s full moon occurs and with it, weather permitting, we’ll see a penumbral lunar eclipse – so called because only the full moon passes through the outer bright rim of the Earth’s shadow, or penumbra, as it rises in the east at sunset. Unlike total eclipses, in which Earth’s umbra — the central region of its shadow — darkens the moon entirely, a penumbral lunar eclipse involves only a slight dimming. Still, sky watchers should expect to see a much more subtle sight with a maximum shadowing on the lower half of the full moon occurring at 6.50 pm. CDT. Sky watchers should start observing the moon at sunset. Best place for observing this Friday’s eclipse is in Europe, Africa and the Middle East where it will be visible as a total eclipse. From Baton Rouge however, this penumbral eclipse should last about 45-minutes. The next lunar eclipse to be seen from our area will be Tuesday, 15 April 2014. Mark your calendars!

INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION AND DRACONID METEORS OVER BATON ROUGE

Although the Draconid meteors appearance this year probably peaked last night you may get a look at them after sunset tonight.  In the evening give your eyes a few minutes to adjust and look towards the constellation Draco just west of the North Star.

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Also in the sky tonight is the International Space Station. Here is where and when to look:

Time:  Tue Oct 08 7:27 PM cdt

Visible:  5 min

Max Height:  69 degrees

Appears:  SW   -   Disappears:  NE

With a clear sky tonight and a max height of 69 degrees the ISS will look like a jewel crossing the heavens. Enjoy.

Why is the sky blue and why is the sunset red and orange?

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When I was a kid I heard that the sky was blue because it was the reflection off the ocean.  The light from the Sun, which appears white, is actually made up of all colors of the rainbow, when the light enters the atmosphere the colors can become separated (Imagine looking at light through a prism).  We know that bluer light travels in short, tight waves while redder light travels in longer waves. The shorter the wavelength, the more likely the light is to bounce off of an air molecule and become scattered. Blue light is scattered most in our atmosphere.

I also heard, when I was a kid, that when you observe a sunset and you see the shift in color from blue to red that you’re actually seeing the sun’s rays being filtered through the pollution.  Well, that sounds dismal.  It’s also not entirely true.

One of the main factors in determining a sunset’s color is the Earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere is made up mostly of gases as well as some other molecules and particles thrown in for good measure.  The most common gasses in our atmosphere are nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%). The remaining single percent is made up of water vapor and lots of tiny solid particles like dust, soot & ash, pollen, and salt from the oceans.  There are also trace gasses like argon present. Also, depending on where you live, you’ll have to factor in that volcanoes can put large amounts of dust particles high into the atmosphere and pollution can add different gases or dust and soot to the air as well.

The atmosphere of the Earth can be thought of like a filter on a camera lens.

light through a prismLight from a light bulb or the Sun may look white, but it is actually a combination of many colors. When you see light filtered through a prism you’ll see this white light split up into its separate colors, i.e. wavelengths.  White light is the colors of the spectrum blended into each other. rainbowAnd a rainbow that you see in the sky is actually a natural prism effect as rain drops split those different colors up.  The colors have different wavelengths, frequencies, and energies. Violet has the shortest wavelength. Red has the longest wavelength.  The shorter the wavelength means the more powerful the frequency.wavelenghts

So let’s put it all together in how light acts in the air surrounding our planet. Light moves in a straight line until it is messed with (be it gas, dust, ash, etc.). Once something interferes and gets in the way of the light wave it’ll scatter that light in different directions. The probability of light to be scattered by a molecule is proportional its wavelength, so shorter wavelengths of light are scattered much more often than longer wavelengths. In the case of air molecules, the molecules are much smaller than the wavelength of the scattered light, this is called Rayleigh scattering.

 

sunlightpathAs the Sun sets later in the day, the light becomes less and less direct, think of what causes your shadow to be longer in the afternoon than during mid day. During mid day, sunlight is shining almost directly down through the atmosphere, while at the end of the day it is shining through more atmosphere. As the white sunlight travels through more atmosphere, more of the shorter wavelength colors are scattered away from our line of sight. Until finally as the Sun is about to set below the horizon, only red (the visible light with the longest wavelength) remains.