Venus is the dominant celestial object of the evening sky now and for the coming months. As its brilliant light pierces the western sky long after sunset, it is passing near to different areas of interest along the ecliptic, this week passing near the well-known star clusters the Pleiades and the Hyades. These open clusters of stars are very near the ecliptic and as a consequence has many visitors throughout the year. Binoculars bring out the best in the Pleiades and Hyades so if you have a moment look west after sunset and enjoy the spectacle.
The San Francisco Amateur Astronomers are hosting a public event to view the April 4th Total Lunar Eclipse at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Details are found in this Press Release and on the SFAA website. And here is some great information and ideas about the eclipse from Sky & Telescope Magazine. We hope to see you in the early morning hours of Saturday April 4th.
We are in an Eclipse Season, a period of time approximately every six months when we experience 2 or 3 eclipses in a short period of time. Just a few days ago Europe experienced a Total Solar Eclipse far in the north of the continent, and by coincidence I was in the region on a business trip and experienced a partial eclipse. Being there reignited the love I have for eclipses and now that I am back in San Francisco, I am counting down the days to the next Total Lunar Eclipse on the early morning hours of April 4th. This is the third in a 'Tetrad of Total Lunar Eclipses' that started in 2014 and conclude later this year.
Lunar Eclipse April 4
The upcoming Lunar Eclipse will be visible from the west coast of the United States in the pre-dawn hours, starting at 3:17 AM and reaching totality from 4:58 until 5:03 AM. This should be a unique eclipse due to the very short duration of totality. As the Moon will barely be fully engulfed in the umbral shadow of Earth, the color will likely be quite unusual. The past few Lunar Eclipses have produced 'blood red' Moons, but I expect this one will be a more shallow shading with more light on the limb of the Moon and not the dark or ruddy color that is often seen during totality. I look forward to a high-speed Lunar Eclipse. In many ways it will be reminiscent of a Total Solar Eclipse, in that we will only experience a tantalizing short few minutes of totality - something I am quite used to when it comes to Solar Eclipses, but not used to for Lunar.
With the onset of daylight savings time, there is plenty of darkness in the morning to step outside and appreciate the view to the south, with the constellation Scorpius dominating the southern horizon. Over the past months, the planet Saturn has slowly moved from Libra into Scorpius where it will spend the next two years on a slow journey eastward across the constellation. The Moon joins the pair for the next few days in a lovely showing in the pre-sunrise sky.
Comet Lovejoy has been a good target for binoculars over the past months. It remains a nice celestial object this month, gradually heading north toward Polaris. In the coming weeks you can find it in the northern constellation Cassiopeia, a faint but distinctive smudge of light that glows against the background stars. I have seen Lovejoy over the past months and enjoy the glow of its coma and tail. Comets don't often remain visible for this long, so if you have a moment and clear skies to the north, enjoy!
This evening three celestial objects form an impressive tight grouping: Venus, Mars and the Moon. On Friday they are all in a group, and on Saturday the Moon moves on but Venus and Mars are even more closely aligned in a conjunction. All you need is a clear western horizon and the rest will take care of itself.
Jupiter has taken its place as the dominant object in the night sky, outshining everything else around it for the coming months. It just reached 'opposition' as it has its closest approach to the Earth for the next year. At opposition, Jupiter and the Earth and Sun are in a straight line, and Jupiter is visible for the entire night, rising in the east as the Sun sets in the west, towering high overhead during the night, and setting in the west just as dawn breaks.
Details of Jupiter
The disk of Jupiter is at its maximum visible size, a clear ball with dominant cloudtops in backyard telescopes, with the four moons visible every night in an interplay that changes hourly. It's one of my favorite telescope objects because there is so much richness and visual beauty in the sight of this giant planet with its equatorial bands shining through.
Take a moment to appreciate the King of the Night Sky, currently passing through Leo the Lion. Jupiter's orbit takes it around the Sun in 12 of Earth's years, so each year we see it move to the next zodiac sign (Cancer in 2014, Leo in 2015, and Virgo in 2016).
In 2005 I began writing a column for the San Francisco Waldorf School newsletter called "The Urban Astronomer." I started this blog in 2007 as a place to archive my articles and to offer additional insights on the night sky - even if you live in a big city. In 2008 I became an occasional guest on the KFOG Morning Show, and more recently on KALW and KGO. Archived shows are posted on the blog. I conduct private star parties for special events and corporate events. Contact me for details.