Next Week's Total Lunar Eclipse
A total lunar eclipse is well positioned for all the United States in April, but most people will have to set their alarms for the middle of the night to see it. The moon passes into the shadow of Earth and takes on a reddish hue overnight from April 14 to 15. The far northeastern US will see the eclipse at moonset, but for the rest of the continental US, the whole eclipse is visible. The partial phase, as our shadow begins to cover up the brightness of the full moon and then gives it back, lasts for about an hour on either side of the total phase. Totality for the Central time zone begins at 2:07 a.m. CDT and ends at 3:25 a.m. CDT, and for Mountain time is from 1:07 a.m. to 2:25 a.m. Pacific time has to wait until just after midnight, from 12:07 a.m. to 1:25 a.m. The moon officially reaches full phase during the eclipse on April 15 at 2:42 a.m. CDT.
An annular solar eclipse follows a few weeks later, on April 29; however, as it occurs over Antarctica, it will go largely unseen by humans.
With the return of spring, constellations such as Virgo have taken center stage. Fortunately, Virgo has a lot of action for stargazers this month. The reddish planet Mars is close to Virgo’s brightest star, Spica. Mars shines more brightly at magnitude -1.5. The Red Planet reaches opposition on April 8, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise.
On April 14, the moon is one day away from full phase (and a few hours from a total lunar eclipse), and it will rise in the southeast beside Spica. To the upper right of the pair is Mars, and to the upper left of the pair is a dimmer star known as Heze.
If you can find Spica, Mars, and Heze, you may be able to locate two asteroids nearby that also reach opposition in April. Use binoculars to track down Vesta and Ceres. Vesta will reach opposition at magnitude 5.8 on April 13, and Ceres will reach opposition at magnitude 7.0 on April 14. Just over four degrees to the left of Heze floats Vesta, with Ceres about three degrees farther to the left of Vesta. The best way to spot asteroids is to sketch the field of view over a series of nights and note what objects move.
Early birds can find Neptune less than two degrees from Venus on April 12 before sunrise. Back in the evening sky, Jupiter and Saturn are also visible, with Jupiter and the moon pairing up on April 6 in the west. April 16 will find Saturn and the moon less than two degrees apart in the constellation Libra. As these spring and summer constellation begin to appear, make sure you’ve gotten your last good looks at the winter constellations. Take a quick peek at gems like Orion, with its famous nebula, through a telescope. Odds are that the harsh winter has kept you from enjoying the winter constellations in more depth, so take the opportunity to do it in warmer spring weather before they join the sun.
April has one decent meteor shower called the Lyrids, which peaks overnight from April 22 to 23. The radiant rises late in the evening. Expect about 20 meteors an hour at the shower’s peak.
(Photo: The stages of a total lunar eclipse. Credit: Claudio Sepulveda Geoffroy)
Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.