Ian Hewitt of the Raleigh Astronomy Club took this photo of a lunar eclipse in 2008.

Ian Hewitt of the Raleigh Astronomy Club took this photo of a lunar eclipse in 2008.

On Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014, the Full Moon will pass completely into Earth’s shadow. This total lunar eclipse can be seen from nearly all of the Americas.

In North Carolina, the eclipse is visible during the couple of hours before sunrise on Oct. 8th, while the Moon is setting in the west.

How to view the Oct. 8th lunar eclipse:

1) Check your weather forecast.

Will you have clear (enough) skies? If it’ll be overcast or rainy, you might as well sleep in. As I write this, the forecast looks good for most of North Carolina, including all of the Triangle area.

2) Set an alarm on Tuesday night before you go to bed.

Even if your normal wake-up time on Wednesday will have you up and about during the eclipse, know that the later you wait to head outside after the eclipse begins, the closer the Moon will be to the horizon, and the brighter the sky will be from the approaching dawn.

Here are some important time points (Eastern Daylight Time):

5:15 a.m. – Partial eclipse begins

6:25 a.m. – Total eclipse begins

6:55 a.m. – Moon is at greatest eclipse

7:17 a.m. – Sunrise for Chapel Hill*

7:22 a.m. – Moonset for Chapel Hill*

*Sunrise and moonset times vary depending on your location.

Totality continues until 7:24 a.m. EDT, and the partial eclipse ends at 8:34 a.m. EDT. But once the Moon has set for where you live, your view of the eclipse is definitely over.

3) Find a good western horizon.

That means avoiding hills or obstructions, such as from buildings or nearby trees. For the Eastern U.S., the Moon will be setting in the west during the eclipse. After taking the trouble to be out so early, you’d undoubtedly prefer to see the Moon eclipsed by Earth’s shadow rather than by trees or buildings.

The Moon will only sink lower in the sky as the eclipse progresses, making it harder to see the eclipse. So you may want to get outside early on, fairly soon after the partial eclipse starts at 5:15 a.m. EDT.

For those of us in the Eastern U.S. there’s about a five-minute period (7:17-7:22 a.m. in Chapel Hill) when the Sun and eclipsed Moon are simultaneously above the horizon — a “selenelion.” But good luck seeing it around here. You’ll need true horizons for both the west (where the Moon is setting) and the east (where the Sun is rising) at the same time.

4) Open your eyes.

The Moon is always a lovely sight through binoculars or a telescope, but for viewing lunar eclipses just the unaided eye will generally suffice. If you’re trying to see the selenelion, binoculars will help you pick out the Moon low in the brightening sky (remember: DON’T look at the Sun through binoculars).

You can see a simulation of the eclipse as it would look from Chapel Hill at the Solar System Scope site. During a lunar eclipse, the Moon usually turns an interesting shade of orange or red.

The next lunar eclipse happens April 4, 2015, at roughly similar times, but on a Saturday.

International Observe the Moon Night is Sept. 6, 2014. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

International Observe the Moon Night is Sept. 6, 2014. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

Come celebrate International Observe the Moon Night with us on Saturday, September 6, 2014, at Jordan Lake. If the weather permits, Morehead will host a public skywatching session from 8 to 10 p.m. at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area.

While you’re under the moonlight by the water, you might think about this traditional Alutiiq story, “The Girl Who Married the Moon”:

Long ago, a girl and her cousin would sit on the beach and gaze at the Moon for hours as he journeyed across the sky. They both fell in love with the Moon and wanted to marry him.

The Moon said he choose as his wife the girl who was more patient. “Close your eyes,” the Moon said.

He picked up the girls by the ends of their long dark hair and began lifting them toward the sky. One girl couldn’t resist peeking before they arrived and found herself falling back to Earth and landing safely on the beach.

The more patient girl became the Moon’s wife, and she lived happily with him at first. But soon she grew lonely and bored. Her husband was often gone to do his work, and she had little to do.

Eventually, against her husband’s wishes, she entered his storeroom and discovered masks of different shapes, such as crescent, gibbous, and full. When she put on the full moon mask, it stuck to her face. She couldn’t pull it off and hid herself in bed, fearing her husband’s anger.

But when her husband returned home, he gently removed the mask from her face and agreed that from then on, the two of them should share the Moon’s work of lighting the sky. Since then, the man has carried the Moon across the sky during the first half of its cycle, and the woman carries it during the second half.

On Saturday, September 6, 2014, the phase of the Moon will be waxing gibbous, which means the husband is nearing the end of his turn lighting the sky. At the Jordan Lake skywatching session (weather permitting), we’ll provide telescopes where you can see his “mask” in lovely detail.

For a full version of the Alutiiq story, with music and artwork, watch the beautiful telling of “The Girl Who Married the Moon” created by students at Kodiak High School.

Learn more Moon stories at Morehead Planetarium later this year, on Saturday, December 6, 2014, at “Star Families: The Moon.”

The Perseids are named after Perseus, the constellation from which they appear to radiate. (Credit: Stellarium)

The Perseids are named after Perseus, the constellation from which they appear to radiate. (Credit: Stellarium)

The 2014 Perseid meteor shower will peak on the night of August 12/13 (Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning). Tips for viewing the meteors:

1) Adjust your expectations.

In 2014, the peak of the Perseid meteor shower coincides with a waning gibbous Moon. That moonlight will hide the dimmer meteors from your view. This year, you might see around 20 or more Perseids an hour if you look between midnight and dawn on the peak night.

Although that’s fewer than you get to see during a favorable year for the Perseids, a bright meteor every few minutes is still more than you can expect to see on an average night sometime else during the year.

2) Know what you’re actually seeing.

Even though they are sometimes called “shooting stars,” meteors are not falling or dying stars. The streaks of light you see result from cosmic debris interacting with Earth’s atmosphere. In the case of the Perseids, the debris has been left by Comet Swift-Tuttle.

3) Choose a good time to look.

The peak night for the Perseids is expected to be August 12/13, 2014 (Tuesday evening into Wednesday morning). But the Perseid meteor shower is already happening, so if you have a clear sky, you might try looking tonight (Aug. 11/12). You can also try looking for a couple of nights or so after the peak. Just don’t expect to see as many meteors.

To see the most meteors, try viewing after midnight on the peak night. If earlier in the evening is more convenient for you, you may get to see a dramatic “earthgrazing” Perseid that makes a long streak across the sky.

Most important of all: Check your weather forecast. You won’t see Perseids through clouds or rain.

This is what competes with your view of the 2014 Perseid meteors. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

This is what competes with your view of the 2014 Perseid meteors. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

4) Choose a good place.

Find a safe dark place (away from unshielded lights) with an open view of the sky.

5) Bring a reclining chair.

Craning your neck to look up at the sky quickly becomes tiring. Consider bringing a reclining lawn chair or sleeping bag.

6) Wear warmer clothes than you think you need to.

Even in summer, it can feel cold when you’re outside for a while in the middle of the night, especially when you’re not moving around.

7) Choose a good direction of the sky to look.

Face away from the Moon (getting it behind trees or a building if possible), and look toward the darkest part of your sky. You don’t need to know how to identify the constellation Perseus, the part of the sky from which the meteors appear to originate. Late at night the Perseids can appear anywhere in the sky.

In 2015, moonlight won’t be a problem for the peak of the Perseids.

[UPDATE, 8/1/14: We've had to cancel the skywatching session for Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, thanks to the weather forecast.]

If it’s visible in the night sky, the object that generates the most gasps and exclamations of “wow!” from telescope viewers at our skywatching sessions is Saturn.

Saturn is the showpiece of the night sky. If you have never seen this planet through a telescope, you owe it to yourself to put it on your life’s to-do list.

Smile! You’re in this picture. In this image taken by the Cassini spacecraft on July 19, 2013, Earth is a tiny dot in the distance. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Of course, in a backyard telescope Saturn won’t look quite like it does in the accompanying image, which was taken by the Cassini spacecraft. But you will be able to see Saturn’s rings.

We hope to glimpse Saturn at our next skywatching session, scheduled for this coming Saturday, August 2, 2014, from 9 to 11 p.m. at Jordan Lake (Ebenezer Church Recreation Area).

Unfortunately, at this writing, the weather forecast looks dismal, and we may need to cancel. Before you head out to this or any other skywatching session, always check Morehead’s website to make sure there isn’t a cancellation notice. We also usually post updates on Facebook and Twitter.

Although poor weather may force us to cancel skywatching this Saturday, we’ll try again at Jordan Lake on Saturday, September 6, 2014. Saturn will still be in the evening sky, and it’s also International Observe the Moon Night.

The runner-up for gasps at the telescopes is the Moon.

Sun's path

The Sun passes higher in the sky in summer than winter. This is roughly how things look from North Carolina. (Credit: United States Naval Observatory)

The temperature in Chapel Hill is 96-but-feels-like-100 as I write this. Astronomically speaking, though, it’s still spring here. Summer arrives to the northern hemisphere at 6:51 a.m. EDT this Saturday.

On that date, June 21, 2014

1) The Sun reaches its most northern point over Earth’s surface relative to the equator.

2) In the southern hemisphere, it’s the first day of winter—not summer. So it’s rather northern-centric of us to call June 21st the summer solstice. Instead, we might call it the June solstice.

3) The Sun rises and sets at its most northern points on the horizon relative to the east and west, respectively – that is, unless you happen to be reading this from north of the Arctic Circle, where the Sun won’t set at all (24 hours of daylight), or from south of the Antarctic Circle, where the Sun won’t rise (24 hours of darkness).

4) It’s the “longest day” (most hours of daylight) in the northern hemisphere (14 hours and 36 minutes in Chapel Hill), but…

5) …we don’t have our earliest sunrise or latest sunset of the year. In Chapel Hill, we’ve already had our earliest sunrises, at 5:59 a.m. And our latest sunsets, at 8:37 p.m., don’t start happening till later next week. Why don’t the earliest sunrise and latest sunset coincide with the summer solstice? Short answer: Because clock time and Sun time are not the same.

6) The Sun reaches its highest point in our midday sky for the year, but…

7) …the Sun does not pass directly overhead for us. For that to ever happen, you have to live in the tropics, between the latitudes of 23½° south and 23½° north. Chapel Hill’s latitude is 36° north.

What can you see in the sky this summer? Find out by attending these programs under the planetarium dome:

  • Star Families: Summer Skies – Saturday, July 12, from 3:30-4:15 p.m. For families with children ages 7-12.
  • Carolina Skies – every Sunday at 3:30 p.m. through August 24, 2014. For adults and for children ages 8 and older.

To view the real night sky, join Morehead for our free skywatching sessions this summer. If the weather permits, we’ll be at Jordan Lake on June 28, August 2, and September 6, 2014. Also join us in Raleigh at Historic Oak View County Park on August 9, 2014.

It certainly can FEEL as if the Sun is directly over North Carolina during the summer.

27 May 2014
A constellation tour at Jordan Lake

People gather for a constellation tour at Jordan Lake. (Credit: Steve Andrews)

A plethora of planets awaits you at Morehead’s next skywatching session at Jordan Lake this Saturday, May 31, 2014. We’ll be at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area from 9-11 p.m. (weather permitting).

Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn all currently decorate the evening sky. To catch Mercury, come near the beginning of the session, since it’ll set over the lake around 10 p.m.

You may notice that the 4 planets look as if they’re lined up across the sky. That line (really more of an arc) is called the “ecliptic.” The ecliptic marks the path that the Sun appears to follow in front of the constellations of the zodiac as Earth orbits the Sun over the year.

You can also think of the ecliptic as the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, projected into space. Because the other planets in our solar system orbit the Sun in roughly that same plane, you’ll always see planets near the ecliptic.

A red arc marks the ecliptic in this all-sky view an hour after sunset on May 31, 2014. (Credit: Stellarium)

A red arc marks the ecliptic in this all-sky view an hour after sunset on May 31, 2014. (Credit: Stellarium)

In addition to planets, we’ll be observing the Moon and other celestial objects at the upcoming Jordan Lake skywatching session. Directions and Frequently Asked Questions are available at the Morehead website.

Check the Morehead website before you head out to the lake – just in case we’ve had to cancel because of clouds or rain.

What about Venus? Early birds can see it in the eastern dawn sky.

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.

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