Night lights: Spring brings eclipsing views

By Andy Veh, for the Redoubt Reporter

Days are getting longer and nights are getting shorter, so this will be my last column before fall. The winter constellations Orion, Gemini, Taurus, Canis Major and Auriga with all their bright stars are now visible in the west, setting during the late evening. Leo with its bright star Regulus is speeding across the sky, thus I perceive Leo as the harbinger of spring. When it appears in the east winter’s end will soon be here, and when it reaches the western horizon, flowers are in full bloom and deciduous trees will have regained their leaves. In addition, the summer triangle comprised of the bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair reappears in the northeast.

Planets in the evening and all night: Saturn and Mars are visible all night long, forming a large triangle with red Arcturus. In early April, Mars is really close to Virgo’s Spica, and by month’s end it will retrograde quite a bit toward the west. Arcturus itself is the bottom star of Bootes, also commonly seen as an ice cream cone.

The full moon appears next to Mars on April 13 and 14 (the evening of the lunar eclipse) and next to Saturn on April 16.

Jupiter is visible near Gemini’s Castor and Pollux, from dusk on until long after midnight, farther in the west. It is so bright that it’s the first object we see. It is joined by the waxing first quarter moon April 5 and 6, and by the waxing crescent moon May 3.

Jupiter is the brightest wanderer in the sky because Venus rises together with the sun and will not be visible again until fall. However, since this is Alaska, you may spot it very low on the northeastern horizon around 2 a.m. during June and July.

Mercury, Uranus and Neptune rise with the sun, so that they can’t be seen against the bright daytime sky.

The Lyrid meteor shower (April 16 through 25) peaks in the early morning hours of April 22. The constellation Lyra with its bright star Vega is high above the southern horizon. As the meteors seem to emanate from that spot in the sky, look all around Lyra.

The full moon will be April 14 to 15. As the sun, Earth and moon are aligned, this is the only time that Earth’s shadow is potentially able to strike the moon, so a lunar eclipse is potentially visible. However, this happens only every sixth lunar orbit — i.e. every six months, because the moon’s orbit is tilted (inclined) by 5 degrees and usually moves above or below Earth’s shadow.

This is a sixth orbit and the sun, Earth and moon are perfectly aligned, making a total lunar eclipse visible in Alaska on April 14. I will be at Soldotna Creek Park with telescopes on hand from about 9 p.m. (the start of penumbral eclipse) until about 1 a.m. (end of totality). The eclipsed moon is right next to the bright star Spica. To its right is reddish Mars and to its left is Saturn.

Lunar and solar eclipses always occur together, two weeks apart, because both nodes of the moon’s orbit are aligned with the sun and Earth. Thus, a partial solar eclipse is visible April 29 and you can see it if you travel a little — to Australia.

And, back to the sixth orbit, we will again see a lunar and a solar eclipse in October, both of them visible from Alaska.

Andy Veh is an associate professor of physics, math and astronomy at Kenai Peninsula College.

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Filed under astronomy, Night Lights

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