Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Monday, April 14, 2014

COSMIC STRINGS ALERT: Lunar Eclipse Overnight Tonight!

Greetings folks!

Tonight you have the chance to see the Moon slide through the Earth's shadow in what's known as a lunar eclipse.  Because the shadow of the Earth does contain some light (namely, the light from all the sunrises and sunsets occurring around the world through the atmosphere), the Moon takes on a fascinating reddish color.  Therefore, lunar eclipses are sometimes referred to as "blood Moons."  Don't worry...despite all the hype running around the internet, there's nothing scary, dangerous, or Earth-shattering about tonight's eclipse.

The Moon in eclipse.  Courtesy Fred Espenak and NASA.

To see this wonderful event, get up around 2AM.  That's when the Full Moon will begin dipping into the shadow of the Earth.  It will take almost an hour for the Moon to move all the way into the shadow.  Once the Moon is totally eclipsed, the color will become clear.  It will be interesting to see how red the Moon looks...sometimes the light scattering into the shadow makes the Moon an almost bright orange...sometimes it can turn the Moon a very deep red, almost brown color.  It will all depend on the state of the Earth's atmosphere tonight - how much dust is in it, how much pollution, and other factors.

The eclipse will continue until sunrise, so depending on whether you have work or school on Tuesday (or still need to finish your taxes!), you might want to just watch a little while, and then head on back to bed.

This eclipse is the first of a tetrad, a group of four consecutive total lunar eclipses, over the next year and a half or so.  So if you miss this one...stay tuned...maybe you can catch the next one!

Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars...

Guess what?  We're playing a game.  This image has something in common with the title...but what?


We're in the middle of Spring Break here at the Virginia Living Museum, and that means lots of shows.  It's also a time when lots of people visit the museum, so we're really keeping busy around here these days.

During times like Spring Break and Summer, I get to talk to a lot of people about the sky.  So few of us take the time to stop and look up in the evenings...and even fewer of us can do so multiple times in a month.  Many folks don't realize that the sky is always changing above them!  The Earth's rotation carries stars and other celestial objects across the sky daily.  While the stars are fixed compared to each other over the course of a human lifetime, planets move constantly through the solar system, changing their positions against the background stars.  Compared to the stars, planets are moving at the speed of light!  The galaxy rotates as well, carrying the Sun and the the entire solar system along with it in a grand motion that we humans never see.

Another strange image that's somehow connected to something in the previous paragraph.

Even for those folks familiar with their local sky can be startled by the experience of seeing the sky from a new location.  Moving across the surface of the Earth also changes what you can see at night...especially if you change hemispheres!  When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, it can be an amazing experience.  Those stars, and many others, are never visible in the Northern Hemisphere, and can be seen only when venturing far to the south.  An added bonus of visiting in South America or Australia?  A view of the two companion galaxies to our own Milky Way - the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds!

Did you figure it out yet?  If you know who these guys are, and read the paragraph above carefully, you might make the connection!

Watching the sky can be romantic too.  I remember sharing a lovely evening under the stars in Chincoteague with my husband, not too long after we were married.  It was beautifully dark on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and we were staying at a lovely bed and breakfast for the weekend.  We went out for a stroll on a delightfully warm and clear evening, and I remember smiling at my husband as the pale yellow Moon shone in his eyes.  We often get requests for proposals to take place under the stars in the planetarium, and we've even hosted a few weddings over the years!

Same thing here - if you know who they are, you might put them together with some words above.

The sky is filled with extraordinary objects.  A few times I've been asked what my favorite ones are...and that's a very tough question, because so many of them are incredible both scientifically and in terms of sheer beauty.  I guess if I had to come up with a short list, I'd say Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda and Titania.

This one is a total red herring - I just like the picture.

Wondering what on Earth this post has been about?  I've just taken you on a clandestine astronomical and musical journey.  I adore music - rarely do I not have a tune in my head or playing somewhere about me.  As I type, Duran Duran's Rio is playing in the laser show running in the planetarium.  And my life is currently awash in the music from Disney's Frozen - I have a 10 year old daughter, you see.  But this post has quoted some of my favorite astronomical lyrics from five different songs.  Did you spot any of them?  The unusual pictures might give you a clue.  Give another look-see over the text to see if you can find them, or scroll down to see them identified.  Enjoy!

Back again in a couple of weeks!  Until then...
Carpe noctem!

PS: Don't forget the star party at the museum this Saturday - Mars Madness!  Mars will be making a close approach to Earth, and should look awesome in our telescopes.  NASA will be on hand with fun activities and exhibits, and we'll have the usual slate of great shows in the planetarium.  NASA exhibits are FREE and begin at 6pm in the Education Center.  Observing is also FREE and begins at sunset (around 7:30pm).  Check our website for the slate of shows in the planetarium - $6 or any 2 for $10.  Members are always half price!


Halfway between the gutter and the stars... (title)  from Weapon of Choice by Fatboy Slim
Image 1: Christopher Walken in the video for Weapon of Choice
Planets are moving at the speed of light... (paragraph 2) from Speed of Sound by Coldplay
Image 2: Coldplay performing Speed of Sound from the video.
When you see the Southern Cross for the first time... (paragraph 3) from Southern Cross by Crosby, Stills and Nash
Image 3: Crosby, Stills and Nash in concert.
The pale yellow Moon shone in his eyes... (paragraph 4) from Under African Skies by Paul Simon
Image 4: Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on stage.
Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda and Titania... (paragraph 5) from Astronomy Domine by Pink Floyd
Image 5: Hubble Space Telescope image.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

This is NOT an April Fool's joke!

Really!  I promise!  This is a real post, and not a joke!

I wanted to let you all know about a really cool event coming up in a couple weeks...and I'm giving you that much time to prepare, because, might need it.

It's been a long, long time since we had a really awesome lunar eclipse event here at the museum.  I love our "Total Luna-See" parties...we have a great time, see the Moon turn an amazing color, and generally it's pretty much a party atmosphere all night long!

Sadly, we won't be doing that for the upcoming lunar eclipse.  Why?  Because the darn thing happens at 3AM!  On a Tuesday morning!

How we get lunar eclipses - the Earth must pass directly between the Sun and the Moon.  Image by Fred Espenak.  Courtesy NASA.

Yep, that's right, on April 15th - the all-glorious Tax Day here in the U.S. - at the ungodly hour of about 2AM on the East Coast - the Full Moon will quietly begin sliding into the shadow of the Earth.  Like most shadows, the Earth's shadow is not completely devoid of light - the atmosphere of the Earth scatters from red light from the sunrises and sunsets happening around the world at the time into the shadow, turning the Moon a beautiful reddish color.  How reddish really depends on the state of the atmosphere.  If the air is relatively clean and clear, the Moon will indeed appear an almost blackish-red.  If there's a lot of dust or other pollutants in the air, a coppery or even orangey-red Moon could result.

The Moon during a lunar eclipse.  The center image is the moment of total eclipse, showing the Moon an intense red color.  The two side images are from a time when the Moon was not yet totally in the darkest part of the Earth's shadow.  Images by Fred Espenak.  Courtesy NASA.

One thing's for sure, if you want to see what color the Moon turns this time'll need to be a very dedicated astronomy buff.  The eclipse will peak at around 3AM  By around 5AM, the event will be coming to an end.  So it means spending a long night outside...on a weekday.  Before work.  Or school.  Or whatever else an average Tuesday on which your tax forms are due might bring you.


Soooo...maybe this won't be the best lunar eclipse to get outside to try to see.  That's okay...we've got three more chances coming up over the next year and a half.

The April 15th eclipse is the first of a tetrad - a group of four successive total lunar eclipses.  Amazingly, all four will be at least somewhat visible in the United States!  The next one in this series will be on October 8, 2014...and for the East Coast, will occur as the Moon is setting.

Well, phooey.

Maybe we'll have better luck in 2015. 

Again, I say - this is NOT an April Fool's joke!  But if you'd like one, check this out.

Until next time...
Carpe noctem!