Seeing Red: Spectacular Views of this Morning’s Total Lunar Eclipse

Did the Moon appear a little on crimson side to you last night? It’s not your imagination, but it was a fine textbook example of a total lunar eclipse. This was the first total lunar eclipse visible from the Earth since late 2011, and the first of four visible from the Americas over the next 18 months.  

And although much of the U.S. and Canadian eastern seaboard was under cloud cover, those west of the Mississippi River were treated to a fine show. We were the lucky exception here at Astroguyz HQ just north of Tampa Bay in Florida, as the storm front held off juuusst long enough to witness the eclipse in its entirety.

We will admit, though, that there were some tense moments. A wave of thick clouds threatened to end our session altogether just moments before the onset of totality before finally abating. We shot stills, streamed video, made observations, and heck, just stepped back once in a while to stare at the ruby-tinged beauty that was totality.

And judging from the flurry of web traffic, the odd late Monday night/ early Tuesday morning timing for this eclipse did little to stem folks interest. We noted to Virtual Star Party co-host that the excitement was reminiscent to the early morning landing of Curiosity on the Red Planet.

Anyhow, here’s just a sampling of some of the great pics currently pouring in to Universe Today:

 Credit: Henry Weiland of Honolulu, Hawaii
An eclipsed Moon+Spica. Credit: Henry Weiland of Honolulu, Hawaii

Visually, we’d place this morning’s eclipse between a Danjon value of 3 and 4, with a bright yellowish rim contrasting with a dark, coppery core near the center of the umbra. One astute viewer noted during the webcast that the eclipsed Moon took on a decidedly 3-D appearance, versus its usual flat look when nearing Full.

The eclipsed Moon, Mars and Spica. Credit: @Astrocolors
The eclipsed Moon, Mars and Spica. Credit: @Astrocolors

And speaking of Mars, we fielded lots of “what are those bright stars nearby?” questions as well. The bright blue-white star Spica and the planet Mars “photobombed” many eclipse images. Spica just missed being occulted by the Moon during the eclipse by less than two degrees, And Mars just passed opposition this week and was at its closest approach to the Earth for 2014 on the night of the eclipse.

Approaching totality as seen from Jacksonville, Florida. Credit Richard Hay @WinObs
Approaching totality as seen from Jacksonville, Florida. Credit: Richard Hay @WinObs.

As totality approached, shutter-speeds became longer as the red edge of the Moon became apparent. It always amazes me to think that the Earth casts that long red shadow back into the void of space every night, but its only during a lunar eclipse that you actually get to see it. We’re always told that the Earth is round, but during a lunar eclipse is one of the only times that you can really witness this curve, up close and personal.

NYC Credit: AstroVal1
A gathering of red objects, both celestial and terrestrial. Credit: AstroVal1, New York City.

This eclipse was placed reasonably high in the sky for Northern hemisphere viewers, though that also meant a lack of pics with foreground, except of course for creative shots like the one above. And with the explosion of digital imaging technology, its amazing what folks are doing to image eclipses, even using mobile phones:

IPhone eclipse. Credit: Mike Weasner.
An IPhone eclipse. Credit: Mike Weasner.

We’ve come a long way since the days of film and doing back of the envelope calculations for afocal SLR photography of the Moon, that’s for sure. Unlike solar totality, lunar eclipses are a long at stately affair. In fact, totality during this eclipse lasted for one hour and 18 minutes, about 29 minutes short of the theoretical maximum. This morning’s eclipse won’t be topped in length until 2018.

Credit: Rob Sparks.
A brick red Moon in eclipse. Credit: Rob Sparks.

This also marked our first attempts at adventures in live-streaming an eclipse both on UStream and G+, which was a blast. Thanks to co-hosts and saros chasers Scott Lewis, Fraser Cain, Thad Szabo and Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) for making the broadcast a success!

As of yet, there’s no images of the eclipse from space-based assets, though some may surface. Universe Today’s Elizabeth Howell noted that NASA engineers took precautions to protect the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter during the event: an extended lack of sunlight is a bad thing for solar-powered spacecraft. As of yet, there’s no word as to how the LADEE spacecraft also in orbit around the Moon fared, though its due to complete its mission and crash into the Moon this month.

Moon and Spica. Photo by Author.
The eclipsed Moon and Spica. Photo by Author.

And like the “Blue,” “Super” and “Mini” Moon, the Blood Moon meme is now — for better or worse — here to stay. We’ve already fielded  multiple queries for media sources asking if the current tetrad of eclipses has any special significance, and the answer is no; I would still file your taxes on this April the 15th. Eclipses happen, as do wars, earthquakes and lost car keys… each and every year.

Credit: John O'Connor, Fort Pierce, Florida.
Approaching totality. Credit: John O’Connor, Fort Pierce, Florida.

Want more? There’s no word yet as to if anyone caught any of the more bizarre challenges during this eclipse, such as completing a triple saros exeligmos, catching an ISS transit, spotting a selenelion or catching a stellar occultation during the eclipse. If you did any of the above, let us know!

And finally, the biggest post-eclipse question on everyone’s mind is always: when’s the next one? Well, Australians only have to wait two weeks until a partial solar eclipse graces their continent on April 29th… and the next total lunar eclipse once again favors North America and the Pacific region on October 8th, 2014.

T’was a great kickoff this morning of eclipse season 1 of 2 for 2014!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get Ready for the April 15, 2014 Total Lunar Eclipse: Our Complete Guide

 April the 15th: In the United States, it’s a date dreaded by many, as the date to file taxes – or beg for an extension – looms large. But this year, Tax Day gives lovers of the sky something to look forward to, as the first of four total lunar eclipses for 2014 and 2015 occurs on the night of April 14th/15th favoring North and South America.

The circumstances for the April 15th, 2105 eclipse.
The circumstances for the April 15th, 2014 eclipse. The top chart shows the path of the Moon through the umbra, and the bottom chart shows the visibility region (light to shaded areas) Click here for a technical description. Credit:  Eclipse Predictions by Fred Espenak, NASA/GSFC.

This marks the first total lunar eclipse visible from since December 10th 2011, which was visible at moonset from North America, and marks the start of the first of two eclipse seasons for 2014. Totality will last 1 hour, 17 minutes and 48 seconds, and will be visible in its entirety from the central Atlantic westward to eastern Australia. Unlike a total solar eclipse, which occurs along a narrow track, a total lunar eclipse can be viewed by the entire moonward facing hemisphere of the Earth.

Tracing the umbra: a mosaic of the December 2010 eclipse. Photos by author.
Tracing the umbra: a mosaic of the December 2010 eclipse. Photos by author.

The action begins at 4:37 Universal Time (UT)/12:37 AM EDT, when the Moon enters the western edge of the Earth’s shadow known as the penumbra. The Moon will be completely immersed in the penumbra by 5:58 UT/1:58 AM EDT, but don’t expect to see anything more than a faint tan shading that’s slightly darker on the Moon’s northeastern edge.

The real action begins moments later, as the Moon encounters the ragged edge of the umbra, or the inner core of the Earth’s shadow. When does the umbra first become apparent to you? Totality then begins at 7:06 UT/3:06 AM EDT and lasts until 8:24 UT/4:24 AM EDT, with mid-eclipse occurring just south of the center of the Earth’s shadow at 7:46 UT/3:46 AM EDT.

Finally, the eclipse ends as the Moon slides out of the penumbra at 10:37 UT/ 6:37 AM EDT.  Michael Zeiler (@EclipseMaps) has complied a fine video guide to the eclipse:

Field guide to the total lunar eclipse of April 14 – 15, 2014 from Michael Zeiler on Vimeo.

This eclipse is also notable for being part of a series of four lunar eclipses in 2014 & 2015, known as a “tetrad.” NASA eclipse expert Fred Espenak notes that this series of eclipses is also notable in that all four are visible in part or in their entirety from the United States. We’re in a cycle of 9 sets of tetrads for the 21st century, which began with the first set in 2003. Before that, you have to go all the way back to the 16th century for the last set of eclipse tetrads!

4AM EDT. Credit Starry Night Education software.
The position of the Moon within the Earth’s umbra on the morning of April 15th at 4AM EDT/8UT. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

For saros buffs, the April 15th eclipse is Member 56 of 75 of saros 122, which began on August 14th 1022 A.D. and runs out until a final penumbral eclipse of the series on October 29th, 2338. There are only two total eclipses left in this particular saros, one in 2032 and 2050. If you caught the total lunar eclipse of April 4th, 1996, you saw the last lunar eclipse in this same saros series.

Lunar eclipses have turned up at some curious junctures in history. For example, a lunar eclipse preceded the fall of Constantinople in 1453. A 2004 lunar eclipse also fell on the night that the Red Sox won the World Series after an 86 year losing streak, though of course, lunar eclipses kept on occurring during those losing years as well. Christopher Columbus was known to evoke an eclipse on occasion to get him and his crew out of a jam, and also attempted to use a lunar eclipse to gauge his position at sea using a method first described by Ptolemy while studying the lunar eclipse of September 20th, 331 B.C.

A handful of stars in the +8th to +12th magnitude range will be occulted by the eclipsed Moon as well. Brad Timerson of the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA) has put together a list, along with graze line prospects across the United States. The brightest star to be occulted by the eclipsed Moon is +5th magnitude 76 Virginis across western South America and Hawaii:

Credit: Occult 4.0
The occultation footprint of 76 Virginis during the April 15th lunar eclipse. Credit: Occult 4.0

Note that the bright star Spica will be only just over a degree from the eclipsed Moon, and Mars will also be nearby, just a week past its 2014 opposition. And to top it off, Saturn is just one constellation to the east in Libra!

During the partial phases of the eclipse, watch for the Moon to take on a “Pacman-like” appearance. The Earth’s umbra is just under three times the size of the Moon, and the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos used this fact and a little geometry to gauge the distance to our natural satellite in the 3rd century B.C.

As totality approaches, expect the innermost rim of the Moon to take on a ruddy hue. This is the famous “combination of all the sunrises and sunsets” currently underway worldwide as light is bent through the Earth’s atmosphere into its shadow. It’s happening every night, and during the totality of a lunar eclipse is the only chance that we get to see it.

4AM Credit: Stellarium
Looking to the southwest at 4 AM EDT from latitude 30 degrees north on the morning of April 15th. Credit: Stellarium.

You don’t need anything more sophisticated than the naked eye or “Mark 1 eyeball” to enjoy a lunar eclipse, though it’s fun to watch through binoculars or a low-power telescope field of view. One interesting project that has been ongoing is to conduct timings for the moment when the umbra contacts various craters on the Moon. It’s a curious mystery that the Earth’s shadow varies by a small (1%) but perceptible amount from one eclipse to the next, and efforts by amateur observers may go a long way towards solving this riddle.

Said color of the fully eclipsed Moon can vary considerably as well: the Danjon scale describes the appearance of the eclipsed Moon, from bright and coppery red (Danjon 4) to so dark as to almost be invisible (Danjon 0). This is a product of the amount of dust, volcanic ash and aerosols currently aloft in the Earth’s atmosphere.  During the lunar eclipse of December 9th, 1992 the Moon nearly disappeared all together, due largely to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo the year prior.

A lunar eclipse also presents a chance to nab what’s known as a Selenelion. This occurs when the Sun and the totally eclipsed Moon appear above the local horizon at the same time. This is possible mainly because the Earth’s shadow is larger than the Moon, allowing it to linger a bit inside the umbra after sunrise or before sunset. Gaining some altitude is key to making this unusual observation.  During the April 15th eclipse, selenelion sightings favor the Mid-Atlantic and Greenland where totality is underway at sunrise and eastern Australia, where the reverse is true at sunset.

Want to have a go at measuring the brightness or magnitude of the eclipsed Moon? Here’s a bizarre but fun way to do it: take a pair of binoculars and compare the pinpoint Moon during totality to the magnitude of a known star, such as Antares or Spica.

Note that to do this, you’ll first need to gauge the magnitude extinction of your particular binoculars: NASA’s got a table for that, or you could field test the method days prior on Venus, currently shining at a brilliant -4.2 in the dawn. Hey, what’s a $1,000 pair of image-stabilized binocs for?

And of course, weather prospects are the big question mark for the event. Mid-April weather for North America is notoriously fickle. We’ll be watching the Clear Sky Chart and Skippy Sky for prospects days before the eclipse.

Photography during an eclipse is fun and easy to do, and you’ll have the waxing gibbous Moon available to practice on days prior to event. Keep in mind, you’ll need to slow down those shutter speeds as the Moon enters into totality, we’re talking going down from 1/60th of a second down to ¼” pretty quickly. In the event of a truly dark eclipse, the Moon may vanish in the view finder all together. Don’t be afraid to step exposures up to the 1 to 4 second range in this instance, as you’ve got over an hour to experiment.

Photo by author
Our “eclipse hunting rig…” the DSLR is piggy-backed to shoot stills on the main scope, which will shoot video. Note that the “f/34 field stop” will most likely be removed!  Photo by author

Thus far, only one webcast for the eclipse has surfaced, courtesy of the venerable Slooh. We’ll most likely be doing a follow up roundup of eclipse webcasts as they present themselves, as well as a look at prospects for things like a transit of the ISS in front of the eclipsed Moon and weather forecasts closer to show time.

And speaking of spacecraft, China’s Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu rover will have a fine view of a solar eclipse overhead from their Mare Imbrium vantage point, as will NASA’s LRO and LADEE orbiters overhead. In fact, NASA hinted last year that the April 15th eclipse might spell the end of LADEE entirely…

And thus marks the start of eclipse season one of two for 2014. Next up will be a curious non-central annular solar eclipse over Antarctica on April 29th, followed by another total lunar eclipse on October 8th, and a fourth and final partial solar eclipse of the year for North America of October 23rd.

Watch this space and follow us on Twitter as @Astroguyz, as we’ll be “all eclipses, all the time,” for April… no new taxes guaranteed!

Next up: Heard the one about the Blood Moon? Yeah, us too… join us as we debunk the latest lunacy surrounding the eclipse tetrad!

–      Got pics of the lunar eclipse? Send ‘em in to Universe Today, as a post-eclipse photo round up is a very real possibility!

 

A Challenging Series of Occultations of Spica by the Moon Coming to a Sky Near You

The first in a cycle of challenging occultations of the bright star Spica for northern hemisphere observers begins this coming Monday on August 12th.

Watching a bright star or planet wink out on the dark limb of the Moon can be an amazing event to witness. It’s an abrupt “now you see it, now you don’t” event in a universe which often seems to move at an otherwise glacial pace. And if the event grazes the limb of the Moon, an observer may see a series of winks as the starlight streams through the lunar valleys.

Close companion stars have been discovered during occultations, and astronomers even used a series of occultations of radio source 3C 273 in 1962 to pin down the position of the first quasar.

An occultation occurs when one object passes in front of another as seen from the observer’s vantage point. The term has its hoary roots back in a time when astronomy was intertwined with its pseudoscience ancestor of astrology. Even today, I still get funny looks from non-astronomy friends when I use the term occultation, as if it just confirms their suspicions of the arcane arts that astronomers really practice in secret.

But back to reality-based science. At an apparent magnitude of +1.1, Spica is the 3rd brightest star that the Moon can occult along its five degree path above and below the plane of the ecliptic. It’s also one of only four stars brighter than +1.4 magnitude on the Moon’s path. The others are Antares (magnitude +1.0), Regulus (magnitude +1.4), and Aldebaran (magnitude +0.8). All of these are bright enough to be visible on the lunar limb through binoculars or a telescope in the daytime if conditions are favorable.

It’s interesting to note that this situation also changes over time due to the precession of the equinoxes. For example, the bright star Pollux was last occulted by the Moon in 117 BC, but cannot be covered by the Moon in our current epoch.

Spica is currently in the midst of a cycle of 21 occultations by our Moon. This cycle started in July 25th, 2012 and will end in January 2014.

Spica is a B1 III-IV type star 10 times the mass of the Sun. At 260 light years distant, Spica is one of the closest candidates to the Earth along with Betelgeuse to go supernova. Now, THAT would make for an interesting occultation! Both are safely out of the ~100 light year distant “kill zone”.

What follows are the circumstances for the next four occultations of Spica by the Moon. The times are given for closest geocentric conjunction of the two objects. Actual times of disappearance and reappearance will vary depending on the observer’s location. Links are provided for each event which include more info.

Starry Night
Looking westward 30 minutes after sunset for North American viewers on the night of August 12th. (Created by the Author using Starry Night).

First up is the August 12th occultation of Spica, which favors Central Asia and the Asian Far East. This will occur late in the afternoon sky around 09:00 UT  and prior to sunset. The waxing crescent Moon will be six days past New phase. North American observers will see the Moon paired five degrees from Spica with Saturn to the upper left on the evening of August 12th.

Occult
The footprint for the September 8th occultation of Spica by the Moon. Note that the broken line indicates where the occultation will take place in the daytime sky. ( Credit: Occult 4.1.0.2)

Next is the September 8th daytime occultation of Spica for Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa around ~15UT. This will be a challenge, as the Moon will be a waxing crescent at only 3 days past New. Observers in the Middle East will have the best shot at this event, as the occultation occurs at dusk and before moonset. Note that the Moon also occults Venus six hours later for Argentina and Chile.

Stellarium
Looking to the east the morning of November 2nd for North American observers. (Created by the author using Stellarium).

After taking a break in October (the occultation of October 5 occurs only 23 hours after New and is unobservable), the Moon again occults Spica on November 2nd for observers across Europe & Central Asia. This will be a difficult one, as the Moon will be only 20 hours from New and a hybrid solar eclipse that will cross the Atlantic and central Africa. It may be possible to lock on to the Moon and track it up into the daylight, just be sure to physically block the rising Sun behind a building or hill!

USNO
The occultation footprint of Spica by the Moon for November 29th, 2013.  (Reproduced from the Astronomical Almanac online and produced by the U.S. Naval Observatory and H.M. Nautical Almanac Office).

Finally, the Moon will occult Spica for North American observers on November 29th centered on 17:03 UT. This will place the event low in the nighttime sky for Alaskan observers. It’ll be a bit more of a challenge for Canadian and U.S. observers in the lower 48, as the Moon & Spica will be sandwiched between the Sun and the western horizon in the mid-day sky. As an added treat, comet C/2012 S1 ISON will reach perihelion on November 28th, just 20 hours prior and will be reaching peak brilliance very near the Sun.

And as an added bonus, the Moon will be occulting the +2.8 star Alpha Librae (Zubenelgenubi) on August 13th for central South America.

All of these events are challenges, to be sure. Viewers worldwide will still catch a close night time pairing of the Moon and Spica on each pass. We’ve watched the daytime Moon occult Aldebaran with binoculars while stationed in Alaska back in the late 1990’s, and can attest that such a feat of visual athletics is indeed possible.

And speaking of which, the next bright star due for a series of occultations by the Moon is Aldebaran starting in 2015. After 2014, Spica won’t be occulted by the Moon again until 2024.

But wait, there’s more- the total eclipse of the Moon occurring on April 15th 2014 occurs just 1.5 degrees from Spica, favoring North America. This is the next good lunar eclipse for North American observers, and one of the best “Moon-star-eclipse” conjunctions for this century. Hey, at least it’ll give U.S. observers something besides Tax Day to look forward to in mid-April. More to come in 2014!