Monday, March 17, 2014


Mars by Etienne Trouvelot 1877
Naked eye astronomers – get ready. In April the Red Planet returns to prime time and the Moon shows us a darker side.

In 2003 Mars was closer to us that it had been for over 60,000 years. For our public viewing we opened at dusk and lines formed at the two telescopes - out the door and down the block. The final person viewed Mars at 4:30 AM. 

Every 26 months Mars reaches its closest point to the Earth and the Martian-loving public whips into a frenzy to take a closer look through our telescopes.  We lovingly call this Marsapalooza

Check with your local observatory, planetarium, science center, or astronomy club to see what events they have scheduled.  At the beginning of the April Mars will appear bright and orange in the eastern sky a little after sunset.  In the middle of the month, Mars is technically closest to us, but you’ll continue to see it every night until the end of the year.  Each day, the Earth will pull a little farther away from it until the next closest approach in May 2016.

Tax Day Lunar Eclipse

Total Lunar Eclipse
During a Total Lunar Eclipse the Sun, Earth, and Moon are in perfect alignment.  The full moon orbits into the shadow of the Earth and turns the lunar surface an eerie shade of orange.  The will occur again on April 15.

You will have to get up early or stay up late to watch this eclipse.  The show begins at about 2 AM Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) when you will start to see the rounded shadow of the Earth appear on the disc of the full moon.  Then over the course of an hour, the shadow will cover more and more of the Moon’s surface until the moment when the Moon will be completely in the shadow of the Earth.  This is called totality and it will occur on April 15 from 3:06-4:25 AM EDT. 

During totality the Moon will not disappear but instead turn a different shade.  Astronomers cannot predict what color it will be – pale gray, bright orange, or blood red.  Only the shadow knows!  Some sunlight will still reach the surface of the Moon.  It bends through the Earth’s atmosphere and still dimly gives the Moon some unique mood lighting.  Whatever the color, when you see the total lunar eclipse you are actually seeing all of the sunsets and sunrises of Earth projected onto the Moon. 

After totality ends, you can watch the Earth’s shadow slowly wipe away from the Moon.  The full moon will appear to be its normal bright self again at around 5:30 AM.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ursa Major - The Big Bear

The ancient Greeks and some Native American groups both called these stars a big bear. The Big Dipper is only the rear end and tail of the bear. But have you ever seen a bear with a tail like that? It looks more like a raccoon or an angry cat to me. Well, imagine you're sitting around the campfire thousands of years ago and an old shaman begins to tell you the tale of the Big Bear...

"Once upon a time, a long long time ago there was a young hunter. It had been a cold and dark winter and the village was on the brink of starvation. So they sent their best hunter out in search of food. He collected his bow and arrows and hiked off down the path. He hiked and hiked and hiked and hiked until he came to a dangerous section of the path along the ridge of a mountain - cliffs on each side. As he looked ahead there was a humongous momma bear laying in his path taking a nap (insert snoring noises please). The hunter couldn't go around the bear, over the bear, or under the bear. And he couldn't turn back home foodless as he was. What to do?

The hunter decided that action needed to be taken. Since desperate times call for desperate measures he snuck up on that momma bear and grabbed her by her short, stubby tail and began swinging him around over his head (he was a strong guy!). And as the bear was twirling around and around a funny thing began to happen. The bear's tail started stretching and stretching until finally the hunter let go - whoosh! The bear flew up, up, up so high that she stuck - splat! - into the sky where she slowly turned into the stars we see today. And that is how the Big Bear got her long tail."

People loved this story so much that they wanted to hear more - a sequel. Stay tuned for Part II, the Bear Strikes Back!