Amateur astronomer Robert Nielsen took this photo during a 2007 lunar eclipse.

Amateur astronomer Robert Nielsen took this photo during a 2007 lunar eclipse.

Willing to lose a little sleep the night of April 14-15, 2014? You could gain a big view.

That night, the full moon passes deeply into Earth’s shadow, resulting in the first total lunar eclipse since 2011.

What you’ll need to view this lunar eclipse:

  • A location that’s on the nighttime side of Earth during the eclipse. Being in North America, South America, or in much of the Pacific will do it. A lunar eclipse can happen only if the Moon is full, and a full moon is in the sky only at night.
  • A not-too-cloudy sky. Cleardarksky.com has Clear Sky Charts for locations throughout North America, including many in North Carolina.
  • An alarm clock—unless you’re already awake, perhaps because you’ve procrastinated on finishing your taxes. For North Carolina, the eclipse happens during the wee hours of Tuesday, April 15 (all times below are Eastern):
    • 1:58 a.m. – partial eclipse begins
    • 3:07 a.m. – total eclipse begins
    • 4:25 a.m. – total eclipse ends
    • 5:33 a.m. – partial eclipse ends
The Moon lies near Spica the night of the eclipse. (Credit: Stellarium)

The Moon lies near Spica the night of the eclipse. (Credit: Stellarium)

What you don’t need:

  • A telescope. Of course, the Moon will be a beautiful sight through a telescope or binoculars. But your eyes will do just fine.
  • A dark sky. Light polluted where you live? Don’t let that stop you. Although it will appear much darker than usual, the Moon probably won’t be too hard to find. During a lunar eclipse, Earth’s atmosphere bends some sunlight into the shadow, dimly lighting the Moon.

What should you look for?

  • The Moon generally darkens to a deep red or orange when eclipsed. Its exact color and brightness are affected by atmospheric conditions on Earth, such as any recent volcanic eruptions.
  • The bright bluish-white star Spica will appear to lie very close to the Moon.
  • Reddish Mars will shine brightly to the west (right) of the Moon, about one fist-width away when held at arm’s length.

This eclipse is the first of four consecutive total lunar eclipses over the next year and a half.

The next total lunar eclipse happens October 8, 2014.

Credit: Tyler Nordgren

Credit: Tyler Nordgren

On April 4 and 5, 2014, forty sites from the mountains to the coast will host skywatching sessions for the public, as part of North Carolina’s second annual Statewide Star Party. Hosts include astronomy clubs, parks, nature centers, planetariums, observatories, museums, and universities.

What might you do at a star party event?

1) Look through telescopes. Virtually all star party events will offer telescope observing, many of them with the generous help of local astronomy clubs.

2) Observe the Sun. Several sites will host daytime events with safe solar observing, including Catawba Science Center, Crowders Mountain, Howell Woods, Kathleen Clay Edwards Library, Marbles Kids Museum, Medoc Mountain State Park, and Yadkin County Park.

3) See the Moon. The waxing crescent Moon will be up during the afternoon and evening of April 4 and 5.

A skywatching event at Jordan Lake

Credit: Brian Owen

4) View Jupiter and Mars. Through a telescope, you can see up to four of Jupiter’s moons, too.

5) Gaze at the stars. Constellations such as Orion and Leo will decorate the evening sky.

6) Do other activities. Depending on which event you choose, you can hike on a dune, paddle on a lake, design an alien, build a moon phaser, test your astronaut skills, touch a space shuttle tire, check out robot driving races, or participate in a phases of the Moon basketball challenge.

Find a star party event near you at the NC Science Festival website. You can see detailed listings by filtering the online calendar for the event dates April 4 and 5. (Note: A couple of star party events have been re-scheduled for April 11 or April 12.) Most events are free. A few require advance registration.

NC Statewide Star Party events

Find a star party event near you at www.ncsciencefestival.org

Important! Most events are weather permitting. Check with individual sites about any back-up plans they may have in case of clouds or rain.

The NC Science Festival’s annual Statewide Star Party is made possible through the generous support of the NC Space Grant.

Evidently, being scheduled to present Valentine’s planetarium shows does not qualify one as “emergency personnel” at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Were the University not closed (on February 14, 2014) because of the weather, one legend of love you could have heard at Morehead Planetarium’s now-canceled “Carolina Skies: Valentine edition” is the Estonian folktale of Lindu’s wedding veil.

Imagine the Milky Way as a really, really long wedding veil. (Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay (STScI/AURA).)

Imagine the Milky Way as a really, really long wedding veil. (Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay (STScI/AURA).)

Lindu is courted by several astronomical suitors, who one by one ask for her hand in marriage – and along the way, teach story listeners a few things about the sky.

First comes North Star, who resides above the North Pole, essentially unmoving day and night. “I would make a dependable husband,” he claims, “because you would always know where to find me.”

After Lindu rejects North Star (“he would never take me anywhere”), Moon glides out of the sky to propose. “I would make a romantic husband,” he says to Lindu. “With me, you will travel to a new place each night.”

But Lindu rejects Moon because his path is so narrow. Besides, he’s so changeable.

Next, Sun arrives to proclaim that “with me, you will light the day!” But Lindu worries that Sun’s harsh glare means she’d be lost in his shadow. She says no to Sun.

Finally, Prince Borealis, Lord of the Northern Lights, descends from the sky. His light is gentle, he says, and he travels, but on no narrow path. He comes and goes over the sky as he pleases!

Lindu agrees to marry him, perhaps not thinking through carefully enough the implications of a fiancé who runs completely on his own schedule.

After dancing across the sky with her, Prince Borealis fades away with the dawn, telling Lindu to prepare for the wedding. She begins to weave a wedding veil, awaiting his return.

But Prince Borealis doesn’t come back. As the nights go on, Lindu continues to weave, her veil stretching longer and longer. Eventually, Lindu’s veil drifts delicately from one end of the sky to the other.

Look up on the next clear night. If your sky is dark enough, you can see Lindu’s veil, also known as the Milky Way.

UPDATE 2/1/14: SKYWATCHING IS CANCELLED FOR TONIGHT. We’ll try again on March 8.

If the weather permits, please join us this Saturday (Feb. 1, 2014) for our next skywatching session at Jordan Lake. We plan to be at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Telescopes provided!

We’ll look at the waxing crescent Moon, the planet Jupiter, and other celestial wonders. Also planned are constellation tours and star storytelling. Come near the beginning of the session if you’d like to catch Mercury before it sets.

Saturn sign and image by Jack Roach.

Saturn sign and image by Jack Roach.

Thanks to local amateur astronomer Jack Roach, you may even see Saturn—in a way. He’s made a Saturn-like lighted sign to help mark the turnoff from the main road into Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake. (You’ll have to wait till May to see the real Saturn during a Morehead skywatching session.)

See Morehead’s skywatching page for more information on our skywatching sessions at Jordan Lake and other sites, including links to directions and Frequently Asked Questions.

Important: Jordan Lake skywatching is weather permitting. Before you head out to a skywatching session, always check the Morehead website to make sure there’s not a cancellation notice.

Also mark your calendar for April 4 and 5, 2014, for the 2nd annual Statewide Star Party, featuring dozens of public skywatching events across North Carolina.

Jupiter is currently hanging out in the direction of Gemini, the constellation from which the Geminid meteors appear to originate. (Credit: Stellarium)

Jupiter is currently hanging out in the direction of Gemini, the constellation from which the Geminid meteors appear to originate. (Credit: Stellarium)

First, the good news about the 2013 Geminid meteor shower:

  • The peak night happens at a convenient time for many people, the beginning of the weekend:  Friday evening, Dec. 13, through Saturday morning, Dec. 14, 2013.
  • Even better for most of us, this meteor shower can provide good viewing in the evening hours.  It’s worth trying to spot Geminids as early as 9 or 10 p.m.
  • This is a strong, reliable shower, with up to one or two meteors visible per minute under dark skies.

Now, the not-so-good news:

  • Speaking of dark skies, for this year’s Geminids a waxing gibbous moon will be up most of the night. This means moonlight will wash out the dimmer meteors from view. Expect to see the most meteors (if it’s clear) on Saturday morning after moonset and before morning twilight. For those of you in the Chapel Hill area, your window is between roughly 4:45 and 5:45 a.m. Saturday. (Sorry.)

And finally, the potentially really bad news:

  • Your sky might not be clear. For the Triangle area, current forecasts call for clouds to arrive the night of Dec. 13/14.
Wait till this bright thing sets, and you’ll spot more meteors—that is, if it isn’t cloudy. (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

Wait till this bright thing sets, and you’ll spot more meteors—that is, if it isn’t cloudy. (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

So you might try looking tonight (Dec. 12/13, 2013) – the Geminids are already active, and it looks like North Carolina and most of the southeast U.S. will have clear skies. And one expert thinks that the peak will occur earlier, meaning that Friday morning the 13th could actually be the best time to look, after moonset (3:43 a.m. Friday for Chapel Hill) and before dawn.

If you decide to view Geminid meteors, try to find a dark place away from unshielded lights with an open view of the sky. Wear really warm clothes, and bring a reclining chair or sleeping bag. Look toward the darkest part of your sky, away from the Moon and any unshielded lights.

Geminid meteors appear to radiate away from the constellation Gemini, but you don’t need to know how to find Gemini to see the meteors. They can appear in any part of the sky.

If Friday the 13th turns into an unlucky night of clouds, don’t despair. As part of Morehead’s 2nd Friday event, Science on the Sundial, we’ll have an 8 p.m. Carolina Skies show, where we can simulate a meteor shower for you.

Under Morehead’s planetarium dome, the forecast always calls for comfortable temperatures and clear skies.

This photo is right side up—the projector is mounted at an angle.

This photo is right side up—the projector is mounted at an angle.

How many planetarium people does it take to change a light bulb?

If we’re talking about the bulbs in the projectors that run Morehead’s planetarium shows, the answer is 3:

  • 1 person to crawl into tiny spaces behind the walls of the planetarium theater and crouch for minutes at a time while dealing with hard-to-reach screws and bolts.
  • A 2nd person to keep parts of the projector from falling onto the 1st person’s head.
  • A 3rd person to ferry tools back and forth and to entertain the first two people by attempting (and completely failing) to come up with good light bulb jokes.

3 is also the number of hours it takes to change the four bulbs in the two projectors.

Careful! Each bulb costs $1,650. And can explode if not handled correctly.

Careful! Each bulb costs $1,650. And can explode if not handled correctly.

It takes 3 people to change the bulbs and then many thousands of visitors to enjoy the results.

The Pleiades star cluster, aka “Seven Sisters” (Credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech)

The Pleiades star cluster, aka “Seven Sisters” (Credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech)

A giant grizzly bear chases seven little girls. In desperation, the girls scramble onto a low rock, but they know the bear will easily reach them there.

As the bear rears up on its hind legs, one girl prays to the spirit of the rock: “Rock, take pity on us! Rock, save us!”

The rock hears them. And it begins to grow.

The bear just misses the girls as it slashes out at them. Instead, its claws make deep scratches into the side of the rock.

Imagine that a giant bear scratched the deep grooves in this rock. (Credit: National Park Service, www.nps.gov/deto)

Imagine that a giant bear scratched the deep grooves in this rock. (Credit: National Park Service, www.nps.gov/deto)

As the girls keep praying and the rock keeps growing and lifting them, the bear jumps higher and higher, creating more deep grooves in the rock. The seven girls finally escape into the sky and become stars.

That’s a Kiowa version of how the Pleiades star cluster – also known as the “Seven Sisters” – came to be. You can see these stars, which look like they’re huddling together for safety, during most of the night this time of year.

The rock really exists, too, stretching more than 800 feet into the sky. It’s in Wyoming where it is known by various names, including Devils Tower. Blog readers of a certain generation may recognize this rock from the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It’s a good thing these girls escaped to the sky. (Painting by Herbert Collins, www.nps.gov/deto)

It’s a good thing these girls escaped to the sky. (Painting by Herbert Collins, www.nps.gov/deto)

To hear the full story about the scary bear, along with a few other star stories appropriate for the Halloween season, please join us for Scare-olina Skies:

  • Two evening shows are aimed at adult audiences (older teens welcome): Saturday, Oct. 26, and Wednesday, Oct. 30, both at 8 p.m.
  • Families with younger children should choose one of the afternoon shows: Saturday, Oct. 26, at 2:30 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 27, at 3:30 p.m.

A story about the Pleiades and Devils Tower will be told each time, but the Arikara version in the adult program will unfold quite differently from the Kiowa version.

Medusa also makes an appearance at Scare-olina Skies.

The Moon on Friday morning, Sept. 27, 2013

What the Moon will look like at 9 a.m. EST Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 – but picture a blue sky as the background. (Credit: “Dial-A-Moon”; NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

If you have not seen the Moon in the daytime lately, the next couple of mornings provide a good opportunity.

At its current phase — last quarter — the Moon rises roughly around midnight and sets around noon. Tomorrow (Friday, Sept. 27, 2013), the Moon reaches its highest point in the sky in the south around 7:30 a.m. After that, the Moon slides westward, finally setting around 2:30 p.m. It’s worth looking Saturday, too (add about 45 minutes to those times).

So you might step outside to look for the Moon after you wake up tomorrow, or during your morning commute (unless you’re the driver!), or during lunchtime. The Moon will appear about half lit, on the side facing the Sun.

But don’t wait too many more days to look for the daytime Moon. Although the Moon rises and sets later each day, providing more daytime hours to potentially see it, it also appears less and less lit each day from Earth’s point of view as the Moon’s phase heads from last quarter to waning crescent. On October 4, 2013, it’ll be New Moon – when it’s up all day (and only in the day). But it’s only the side facing away from Earth that’s lit. So you won’t see it.

Want to learn more about the Moon? Mark your calendar for International Observe the Moon Night, on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. That evening, from 7 to 9 p.m. (weather permitting), Morehead will host a skywatching session at Jordan Lake, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. The Moon will be just past first quarter on October 12 and visible in the afternoon and evening sky.

In addition to telescopes and binoculars, the session will feature a few Moon-related demos as well as Moon stories shared by storytellers from UNC’s School of Information and Library Science. This event is free. Join us!

Weather permitting, you have another skywatching opportunity: this Friday (9/27/13) from 8-10 p.m. at Little River Regional Park. No Moon but plenty else to see through the telescopes.

This is the view looking in the northeast sky from Chapel Hill at 4:30 a.m. on Monday, August 12.

Perseid meteors appear to radiate away from the constellation Perseus.

The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks on August 12, 2013. Viewing tips:

1. What you’re seeing. Although meteors are sometimes called “shooting stars,” they are not stars. Instead they are bits of cosmic debris interacting with Earth’s atmosphere and creating a streak of light. In the case of the Perseid meteors, the debris has been shed by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle.

2. Why the Perseids are called that. Trace the streaks of light back to where they started, and (assuming they were Perseids and not other types of meteors) you’ll find they appear to have radiated away from a point in the direction of the constellation Perseus.

3. When to look. The best nights to see the 2013 Perseid meteor shower will likely be the nights of August 11-12 and August 12-13. Check the forecast, and pick the clearer night.

If you want to see the most Perseids, go outside between 4 and 5 a.m. on Monday morning, August 12, 2013 (unless skies are overcast – in that case, sleep in). From a clear dark site you may see an average of up to one Perseid per minute. Because of light pollution, urban stargazers should expect to see fewer.

Did you wince in pain when you read that phrase “between 4 and 5 a.m.”? There are other options! You can also try going out after midnight on the mornings of August 12 and 13. Or you could even try as soon as it gets dark on August 11 and 12. But the later you go out, the more meteors you will see.

4. Where to go. Find a dark site away from unshielded lights; you’ll miss dimmer meteors if you are near badly designed lights that spray light up into the sky. You also want a reasonably open view of the sky, unobstructed by buildings or trees.

5. What direction to look. Look towards the darkest available direction, about halfway up the sky. You do not need to know how to identify the constellation Perseus to see the Perseids. The meteors can appear in any part of the sky.

6. What to bring. Your neck will thank you if you take a reclining chair or sleeping bag to lie on. That sleeping bag, or a blanket, will also help you stay warm. Lying outside in the dark can get chillier than you might think, even in summertime.

7. What to do. Look up at the sky! This might seem obvious, but people frequently miss meteors because they were looking at their friends, their phones, or the ground.

8. What not to do. Be sure to avoid white light (such as from cellphones or flashlights), and don’t give up too soon on your meteor watching. Your eyes need time to adjust to the dark to allow you to see the most meteors.

Now let’s hope we get some clear skies.

If you’re willing to do the 4-5 a.m. thing, you get a bonus: Jupiter and Mars low in the east-northeast.

Look closely at this Mercury crater – it is smiling at you! (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

For early birds, the next week or so is a good time to try to spot Mercury low in the eastern dawn twilight. Look about 40-60 minutes before sunrise. Mercury will appear close to reddish Mars and bright Jupiter.

If observing Mercury has you fantasizing about taking a trip there, you might consider what you should pack. Four possible items:

1)      A really good spacesuit. The high temperature on Mercury can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

2)      Long underwear. Although you would be absolutely scorched on the side of Mercury facing the Sun, Mercury doesn’t have a thick atmosphere to retain that heat. So the temperature on the nighttime side can drop to way, way below freezing.

3)      Ice skates. The MESSENGER mission has found compelling evidence that there is abundant water ice in permanently shadowed craters at Mercury’s poles.

4)      Birthday candles. If you take a vacation that’s long enough, you’ll celebrate a birthday on Mercury. This speedy planet completes a trip around the Sun much faster than Earth does. One year on Mercury is the equivalent of only 88 days on Earth.

You can learn more about Mercury at NASA’s Solar System Exploration site.

Since you can’t actually vacation on Mercury, you’ll have to settle for seeing the planet from Earth.