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The Sky This Week, 2014 April 8 - 15

A busy Full Moon, and Mars at opposition.

Mars, imaged 2014 April 2

The bright region on the lower right limb is the north polar cap;
the bright spot to the lower left is formed by clouds
condensing around the summit of the massive
Olympus Mons volcano.

The Moon brightens the evening sky this week, passing through the springtime constellations as she waxes to the full phase.  Full Moon occurs on the 15th at 3:42 am Eastern Daylight Time.  April’s Full Moon is variously known as the Grass Moon, Egg Moon, Fish Moon, and Pink Moon.  This last appellation will be particularly appropriate this year as Luna undergoes a total eclipse by the shadow of the Earth.  More on this in a moment.  This is also the Paschal Moon, since it’s the first Full Moon to follow the Vernal Equinox.  It marks the beginning of the Jewish observance of Passover and sets the date for Easter among Christians.  Look for Luna about five degrees south of the bright star Regulus on the evening of the 10th.  On the 14th she passes between ruddy Mars and the blue-tinted star Spica, nudging just over a degree north of the star.

The last total lunar eclipse visible in its entirety from Washington occurred on December 21, 2010.  We’ll get our next shot at one on the morning of April 15th.  The Moon will enter the Earth’s penumbral shadow at 12:54 am EDT, marking the beginning of the event.  Most of us probably won’t notice anything unusual until about 45 minutes later when Luna’s disc will begin to show a subtle darkening along her northwestern limb.  At 1:58 am the transit through Earth’s umbral shadow begins, and over the next hour the Moon plunges ever deeper into it.  At 3:07 am the total phase begins, with mid-eclipse occurring at 3:46 am.  The total phase ends at 4:25 am, and Luna exits the shadow at 5:33.  The final traces of the penumbral shadow clear the Moon’s face at 6:38 am, shortly after sunrise.  As to what the Moon will look like during the total phase, that’s anybody’s guess.  This is one of the things that makes watching these eclipses interesting.  The darkness of the Moon’s disc depends very heavily on the clarity of the Earth’s atmosphere, so a bright, coppery-hued Moon means that the air over the Southern Hemisphere is clear.  If you miss this one, don’t fret; we’ll get another eclipse (at a far more decent evening hour) on September 28, 2015.

The bright evening sky is still punctuated by the giant planet Jupiter, which can be seen high in the western sky as evening twilight fades into darkness.  Old Jove still enjoys a prominent place in the sky, delighting earthbound stargazers until the midnight hour.  Jupiter is always a treat to look at in the telescope, where you can see his four bright moons with almost any kind of optical aid.  Each step up in aperture will reveal greater amounts of detail, especially if you patiently wait for moments of good “seeing” in our atmosphere.  Try to locate the Great Red Spot as it transits the planet’s disc on the evening of the 10th.

Ruddy Mars is now at the peak of his current apparition.  He reaches opposition on the 8th, when Earth passes between the red planet and the Sun.  At this time he’ll rise at sunset and set at sunrise, remaining visible in the sky all night long.  Earth and Mars are closest together on the 15th, when just over 57 million miles (92 million kilometers) separate us.  This is the time to try to see details on his far-flung surface, views of which have tantalized earthbound astronomers for centuries. 

Saturn now rises in the southeast at around 10:00 pm EDT.  The ringed planet will continue to drift into the evening sky, and in another month will be dueling Mars for your attention.  While Mars is much brighter, Saturn offers a most unearthly sight in the telescope as the planet spins across space surrounded by his icy rings

Venus continues to hug the southeast horizon in the gathering morning twilight.  Although she is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon, her position makes her hard to spot unless you have a very good horizon to view her over. 

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