Here are the monthly sky watch highlights. Each month, we share the wonders of the universe to help you explore the night sky from your own backyard. (Note: Times listed below are ET.)
by Bob Berman, as featured in
The Old Farmer's Almanac
The Moon glides below Jupiter on the 6th of April.
Mars reaches opposition on the 8th and is closest to Earth on the 14th, which will make the Red Planet easy to spot in the night sky.
At opposition, the planet Mars, Earth, and the Sun are arranged in a nearly-straight line. The oppositions of Mars only happens every 26 months. Mars rises in the east at sunset and will shine overhead around midnight—at magnitude –1.5, matching the brilliance of the Dog Star, Sirius. Mars is slightly larger—at 15 arcseconds—than at its last opposition in 2012.
Vesta, the brightest asterioid at –5.8, reaches opposition on the 13th in Virgo. It can be seen by the naked eye as a dim object centered between the stars Spica and Arcturus. The Moon comes close to Spica and Mars on the 14th.
Remarkably, on the same night that Mars is closest to Earth, there will be a total eclipse of the Moon. On April 14-15, the lunar eclipse will be visible throughout the United States and Canada. The partial phase begins at 1:58 A.M.; totality starts at 3:06 A.M. Only the western states will see the end of the event. See our 2014 eclipse page here.
Astronomer Jeff DeTray has created the sky map below to help you navigate the APRIL sky.
Visit Jeff's site at AstronomyBoy.com
This month's highlight: A total eclipse of the Moon.
The night of April 14–15 offers one of the most spectacular sky gazing sights of this year—a total eclipse of the Moon. When the Earth, Sun, and Moon are in the proper alignment, we are treated to a lunar eclipse. In simple terms, the Earth is positioned between the Sun and Moon, causing the shadow of the Earth to darken the face of the Moon. All of the continental United States will see this event.
The geometry of a lunar eclipse is shown below.
The Moon produces no light of its own. We see the Moon because it reflects sunlight; the Moon is illuminated by the Sun. When the Earth blocks the Sun's light from reaching the Moon, we see a lunar eclipse.
A lunar eclipse unfolds slowly over the course of a few hours, so you'll have plenty of time to catch the action. On the night of the eclipse the Moon, in its orbit around the Earth, will first enter the outer portion of the Earth's shadow, the penumbra. This occurs at about 1:20 a.m. Eastern time (ET), 10:20 p.m. Pacific time (PT). Don't expect to see anything dramatic right away. It will take 20-25 minutes before the face of the silvery-white Moon begins to dim to a silver-gray as it moves deeper into the penumbra, and the Earth blocks more and more of the sunlight.
At 1:58 a.m. ET (10:58 p.m. PT), the Moon enters the darkest portion of the Earth's shadow, the umbra. This is the REAL beginning of the eclipse; everything so far has been just a warmup. It takes a little more than an hour for the Moon to move completely into the umbra, and during this time the appearance of the Moon changes drastically. You'll notice the Moon becoming dimmer and dimmer. More impressively, the color of the Moon starts to change. From its silvery color, the Moon begins to turn a reddish-orange, as shown in the photo on this month's Sky Map.
The actual hue of the reddish coloration varies from one lunar eclipse to another. Sometimes the color is described as that of a copper penny; other times it's more like that of a pumpkin. But why orange and not some other color?
Think about a sunrise or sunset. We've all noticed how the rising or setting Sun takes on a distinctly reddish-orange color when near the horizon. This happens because when the Sun is low in the sky, its light shines through a great deal of our Earth's atmosphere before reaching our eyes. All that atmosphere reddens the sunlight. The same thing happens during a lunar eclipse. As sunlight shines past the edge of the Earth, it passes through the Earth's atmosphere and is reddened, exactly like a sunrise or sunset. The reddened light strikes the Moon and makes the Moon appear reddish-orange.
The Moon moves entirely within the umbra by 3:06 a.m. ET (12:06 a.m. PT) and stays there for more than an hour. It's during this time that the Moon will be at its dimmest and reddest. Then, starting at 4:25 a.m. ET (1:25 a.m. PT), the whole process will occur in reverse. The Moon will slowly move out of the umbra and into the penumbra, turning from reddish-orange back to silver-gray. Eventually, the Moon will move out of the penumbra and return to its normal bright, silvery-white color.
Reserve the night of April 14-15 for this wonderful event. If you can't stay up for the entire eclipse, one observing strategy is get some sleep early and set your alarm for shortly before the Moon enters the umbra—say 1:45 a.m. ET (10:45 p.m. PT). You'll miss the early stages of the eclipse but awake in time to watch the Moon undergo its dramatic color change to reddish-orange.
Sky map produced using Chris Marriott's Skymap Pro
Explore the sky night from your own backyard. A printable black and white map is provided below!
Click for Printable Sky Map (PDF)
Just click, print, and bring outside!