Astronomy News

*by Leslie F. Brown, Ph.D.

Upcoming lunar eclipse and the November 2021 planets

What a month this November is for sky watchers! Right now you can easily spot Venus in the early evening sky following the Sun down to the western horizon. Venus will be easily seen to the west in the late afternoon and early twilight as the brilliant "evening" star throughout November into late December when it will once again disappear into the glare of the Sun. Trailing to the east of Venus are our friends Saturn and Jupiter. Jupiter is the second brightest object in the sky now and will jump out at you right after sunset, but it will need to be fairly dark before you can easily spot Saturn. These bright planets will be with us throughout this month, with Jupiter and Saturn approaching closer and closer in the sky to Venus. Towards the end of this month these amigos will align in your south-south-west sky creating some beautiful early evening celestial views for you and your family.

The full Beaver Moon will occur on November 19th , this Friday. The Moon must be full for a lunar eclipse to be produced. And we are getting a lunar eclipse in the wee hours of November 19th as the Moon passes into the Earth's umbra, the dark, central portion of the Earth's shadow, We will be treated to an almost full lunar eclipse. Technically, for us in SE Connecticut, this eclipse will be a partial lunar eclipse, but it is very close to a full one, nonetheless. For us, the partial umbral eclipse starts in the early hours of 11/19 at 2:18 a.m. EST; the maximum eclipse will be seen at 4:02 a.m. EST, and the visible portion of this lunar event ends at 5:47 a.m. EST, a bit less than an hour before sunrise. Should the skies be cloudy on this date or you just can't stay awake until the early hours of the morning, several organizations will be hosting live streams of this event either on their own sites or on YouTube. Here are some live stream links to explore:

For more information about this lunar eclipse, visit any of the following sites:

Please contact me if you have any questions about what's happening in our November skies or the upcoming lunar eclipse. Do go outside to view the amazing heavens with your family, friends and campus colleagues and enjoy our clear November skies while there is still a bit of warmth in the air. Winter is coming!

education@starstostem.org

The Astronomical Beginning of Fall

September ushers in a noticeable change from hot and sticky weather to warm fall days and chilly nights, perfect for stargazing and for harvesting. This month is the time for local harvest festivals, such as the Big E, as it is the traditional end of the growing season for us in the North. It should be no surprise that the official end of astronomical summer and the start of fall in the Northern hemisphere occurs today, September 22nd! Happy Fall!

This celestial start of fall is also known as the autumnal equinox for Northern residents, but it is the spring equinox for residents of the Southern hemisphere. What makes both the spring and fall equinoxes astronomically special is that this is the date and time when the Sun crosses the celestial equator, the projection of the Earth's equator onto the sky. These events have been recognized since antiquity as times of seasonal change - dates when we experience roughly equal amounts of sunlight and darkness.

The equinoxes have been celebrated for millennia by cultural festivals that denote these agriculturally important times of year. A few of the traditions of the past have survived and we see them reflected in the positioning of standing stones or slotted openings in temple walls that act as astronomical calendars. One of my favorites is the descent of the plumed serpent from the summit of the pyramid of Kukulcan at Chichen-Itza, located in the Yucatan. This temple is a seasonal calendar and at the moment of either equinox, the building's architecture was precisely designed to cast shadows on the North stone staircase, creating patterns of light and dark that look like a scaled serpent descending the side of this enormous structure. When fully "lit", the feathered god with its fanged head stands revealed, then disappears until the next equinox.

The full moon closest to the September equinox is called the Harvest Moon; and it occurred this past Monday evening, just two days before the autumnal equinox. It was a beautifully clear night so I hope you got a chance to go outside and enjoy its splendor.

There are many autumn Harvest Moon festivals to celebrate the end of the growing season and waning of the amount of daylight in the Northern hemisphere. One you may not be familiar with is the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival. This East and South-East Asian festival is held each year on the date of the Harvest Moon. It is a thanksgiving festival, a time to gather with family and celebrate an abundant harvest. One of the Moon Festivals most popular customs is the serving of Moon cakes. These round cakes, filled with sweets and nuts, represent the Moon. One of the things the full Moon symbolizes in these cultures is family reunion. So the Harvest Moon and the deity it represents brings people together to share the rewards of a successful harvest and the end of the summer season.


June skies and the partial solar eclipse this Thursday morning!
June 8, 2021

The new Moon in June will provide us with another treat, even if a hard-to-observe one. This Thursday, June 10th, the new Moon will appear in the same direction in the sky as the Sun, a Sun-Moon-Earth alignment that will produce a solar eclipse! Said another way, on June 10, the Moon sweeps in between the Sun and Earth as shown in the graphic below - syzygy. This line-up causes the Moon's shadow to sweep across a narrow band of the Earth's surface and for those in the band, also known as the path of totality, they are treated to a total or annular solar eclipse.

In Connecticut, we will only see a partial eclipse since we are not in the path of totality. And worse still, this eclipse will start before the Sun even rises here in Connecticut. So at sunrise this Thursday, the Sun will rise partially eclipsed - sunrise is occurring at 5:15 A.M. EDT in Groton on this date. We may be able to catch a tiny bit of this partial solar eclipse as the maximum amount of light blocked will be happening between 5:32 and 5:33 A.M. The eclipsed Sun will be a mere 2 degrees about your NNE horizon when maximum eclipse occurs, not easy to spot. After that, as the Sun rises, the Moon's shadow will continue to move and block less and less of the Sun's disk until the whole show ends at 6:31 A.M. At that point the Sun will be a bit more than 12 degrees above your NNE horizon.

For us here in Connecticut, perhaps we will enjoy this event more by watching it streamed over the net by sites that will see the whole eclipse. Not that there are many major cities along the path of totality of this solar eclipse as it is an eclipse for those few inhabitants of the far north-eastern regions of Canada, parts of Greenland and Russia. Nonetheless, there is a livestream of the event planned by web site timeanddate.com (https://www.timeanddate.com/live/eclipse-solar-2021-june-10?ftag=MSF0951a18).

And if you do try and see the dawn eclipse yourself, please remember to be sure that you use proper eye protection when doing so. Check out the following links for how to watch the Sun and eclipses safely.

How to watch a solar eclipse safely: https://skyandtelescope.org/observing/celestial-objects-to-watch/eclipses/how-to-watch-a-partial-solar-eclipse-safely/

or

https://skyandtelescope.org/2017-total-solar-eclipse/low-tech-eclipse-viewing/

All the best,
Doc Brown

There's a new Moon coming! June 2021

June is the month in which we transition from spring to summer. The astronomical event that marks this is called the June Solstice; on this day the Sun crosses the celestial equator moving from South to North. In the northern hemisphere, this date is also known as the summer solstice and is the longest day of our year. For the southern hemisphere, June 21 marks the start of their winter season and is their shortest day of the year - this date is the winter solstice from them.

The new Moon this month occurs on June 10th. The night skies around this date will not be troubled by moonlight. Consequently, it is a good time to get out and look for planets. If you haven't been out Mars watching yet, then you will want to do at the beginning of this month as Mars is low, about 24 degrees off your western horizon at twilight, around 9 P.M. Eastern. Each passing day it moves closer and closer on the sky towards the Sun and by month's end it will have disappeared from our view by sunset. In return though, we get both Jupiter and Saturn. At the start of June, Saturn is rising in the ESE by 12:30A.M. Eastern and Jupiter rises about an hour later, also in the ESE. By month's end, Saturn rises at 10:30P.M. and Jupiter at 11:20P.M. becoming much more accessible for those who don't relish getting up in the wee hours of the morning to view these two spectacular gas giants.

There will be a full Moon on June 23rd. This full moon is known by many as the Full Strawberry Moon. The Moon in June reaches perigee, it closest approach to Earth in it orbit on the 24th. If the full Moon and perigee occurred on the same night, we would call such a full Moon a full Super Moon. We don't quite get there this month. Nonetheless, the almost full Moon on the 23rd will be bigger and brighter that average and the next evening the true full Moon will also appear brighter and bigger than normal, just not as quite as big and bright as possible. Still both nights will be good ones to get out and enjoy warm weather and a beautiful Moon that will grace our skies from dusk to dawn.

Your donations to STARS to STEM will support more astronomy news and public events in Niantic and our surrounding communities. Please contact us for further information (admin@starstostem.org). Thank you!

Celestial events for our area May 2021

The month of May will bring us warmer weather and more pleasant evenings for stargazing. During May, Mars still graces our WSW evening skies, but now in the constellation of Gemini. Look for it between 7:30 and 11:30 P.M. EDT in the West. Throughout the month you will see Venus appear at dusk as it is now becoming an "evening star". The first week of May, around 7:30 P.M., low on your WNW horizon try and view Venus, Mercury and the Pleiades (in Taurus) all clustered together. These celestial treasures will all be located less than 7 degrees apart with Mars only an additional 40 degrees higher above the group in your evening sky. Watch Mercury over the first three weeks of May as, night-to- night, it moves away from the setting Sun, is up later after dusk, and reaches it greatest angular separation of 18 degrees from the Sun on May 17th. This is the optimal time this month to view our faint celestial messenger as it is still close to bright Venus making it much easier to locate.

Saturn and Jupiter are rising earlier every morning throughout the month of May. Look to the ESE close to the horizon between 2 and 3 A.M. EDT early in the month to find Saturn rising first followed about 45 minutes later by Jupiter. By the end of month, Saturn will be rising by 12:30 A.M. and Jupiter by 1:15 A.M. As we move into June, these bright gas-giant planets will become prominent, bright features in your before-midnight skies.

Additionally, we will get to enjoy another Super-full Moon this month on May 26th. The perigee, aka, Super-full Moon happens when the Moon is both full and closest to Earth. Given that the distance between us is less than average, the Moon will appear larger in the sky by about 8% and brighter than average as well.

Also on May 26th, Earth experiences a total lunar eclipse. Unfortunately, for those of us located on the SE coast of the US, we will only get to witness the penumbral phase of this eclipse which starts at 4:48 A.M. EDT, just before sunrise. The penumbra is the lighter outer portion of a shadow. When the Earth's penumbral shadow starts across the face of the Moon, the change in amount of sunlight reflected to us on Earth will not be noticeable. The partial umbral eclipse phase happens when the Earth's dark inner shadow, the umbral shadow, moves across the Moon. That is when you see the big changes and the Moon starts to look as though large, dark bites have been taken from its surface. For us, the umbral partial eclipse starts at 5:23A.M. EDT just as the Moon sets and the Sun rises. We won't be able to see any of the umbral partial or total eclipse phases here, but the event will be live-streamed from a number of locations such as the Hawaiian Islands or the US West Coast where the full lunar eclipse will be visible. One web site streaming the eclipse is https://www.timeanddate.com/live/eclipse-lunar-2021-may-26. As we get closer to this date, many more live-streaming events will be announced. Stay tuned.

Your donations to STARS to STEM will support more astronomy news and public events in Niantic and our surrounding communities. Please contact us for further information (admin@starstostem.org). Thank you!

What's up in our April night skies? April 2021

The month of April will provide us with several celestial delights to view as temperatures warm and we enjoy the arrival of spring in earnest. This month we will be treated to a full supermoon on the evening of April 27. A supermoon is the popular name given to the full moon that occurs when the distance between the Moon and Earth is smallest. This smallest distance between the Earth and the Moon is known as perigee and so astronomers call this a perigee full Moon. Compared to your average full moon, this super full moon will appear about 7% larger and some 16% brighter than usual. The April full moon, as you may have heard, is often referred to as the full Pink or Wild Phlox moon; it was so named as this is the time of year when the first of these early blooming flowers are making their appearance.

Trying to view the stars, meteor showers or most anything in heavens at times of, or close to, the full moon is difficult as the Moon's light get scattered around the sky and washes out most fainter objects. On the other hand, a great time for star and constellation viewing is on, or near, the night of the new Moon. The new Moon rises with the Sun and is up all day in the sky with the Sun. Consequently by dusk, the Sun and Moon are setting and that leaves the whole night moonless and much darker. This is the best time of the month to observe faint celestial objects such as meteors, or galaxies and star clusters. This month the new Moon occurs on April 12, so around that time, get out your binoculars and scan the heavens looking for some of these faint, fuzzy objects.

Meteor Showers
For some, the highlight of our April skies will be the Lyrid Meteor Shower. The Lyrids get their name from the constellation where the light trails left by these meteors appear to originate - the constellation of Lyra. The name of the progenitor comet that is the source of these bits of rock and dust that burn up in our atmosphere and create this meteor shower is Comet Thatcher (aka C/1861 G1). On average, the Lyrids don't produce numerous shooting stars, just around 20 meteors per hour at the peak. The peak this year will occur in the wee morning hours of April 22rd. If you can't observe on the date of the peak, you can still catch a view of some Lyrids a couple of days before the peak date until the show ends about two or three days after the peak.

Unfortunately this year, it will be hard to observe many of the fainter meteor trials left by the shed bits of Comet Thatcher as this shower occurs close in time to the approaching full Moon. The waxing gibbous Moon that will dominate our skies on the 22nd will wash out all but the brightest of the Lyrids this year. Your best shot at catching the April Lyrids is to observe after midnight to 4 A.M. on the 22rd from a dark sky location. Look all around the sky for the Lyrid star trails, and with luck, you will catch a few of the bright ones streaking across the sky.

Planets
For those of you who want to scan the sky for planets, April heralds a growing number of planets that can be seen in the early evening and two spectacular Jovian planets in the early morning. Toward the beginning of the month, Mars is up and still gracing the constellation of Taurus. You can catch it if you look to the WSW after sunset but before 10 p.m. when it gets very low in the sky. The young crescent Moon will appear just below Mars on April 16th - a lovely scene - then the Moon moves on to occult (i.e., pass in front of) Mars on April 17th at 4 P.M. By 8P.M. the crescent Moon will have moved some 5 degrees away from the Moon. And again the pair will form a lovely grouping in your evening sky.

By April's end, you will be able, with diligence, observe Venus as an evening planet. When either Venus or Mercury appear in our skies just after twilight and into the early evening they get referred to as “evening stars”. Earth's twin is slowly appearing to move away from the Sun on the sky and with each passing day will become easier to spot after sunset. At this time, Mercury too appears as an evening star and its angular distance from the Sun is even greater than that of Venus. Sadly, Mercury is faint as it is a very small planetary body, so it will be harder to see. To find it, scan your WNW horizon between 7:30 and 8:15p.m. On the 29th or the 30th. If you miss Mercury in April, May will provide you with an even better view of this elusive, inner planet. Venus too will become much easier to spot in May. Flowers and planets - a fitting start to spring.

As planet viewing goes, how can you any better Jupiter or Saturn? You can't, and if you want to observe these two gas giants, you will need to rise just before dawn. At 5 A.M. Eastern, Saturn has already risen while Jupiter is just getting above the ESE horizon. You can watch these bright beauties from a spot with a clear, flat eastern horizon until just before sunrise when the glare from the Sun will obscure your view. Jupiter is the very bright morning object and Saturn is the fainter, about 10 degrees away from Jupiter and a bit farther off the horizon. By the end of April, this pair will be rising almost an hour and a half earlier. By 5 A.M. Eastern on the 30th, Jupiter will be well separated from your horizon and very easy to spot in the pre-dawn sky as will Saturn.

Happy hunting!
Leslie F. Brown, Ph.D.
Physics & Astronomy
Connecticut College

"The Stars are Ours" - Niantic Neighbors magazine published March 2021

For those who are early evening sky watchers, unfortunately, there are not many planets visible in our before-midnight March skies. The exception is Mars. During this month, Mars appears as rusty-reddish-wihte orb that can be seen in the constellation of Taurus, the Bull. Mars will be visible throughout the month after sunset, and before midnight when it sets in the South-West. March 19th, after sunset, Mars forms a triptych with the bright, red-giant star, Aldebaran, and the waxing crescent Moon. On this date, Mars will be separated from the Moon by less than 3∞ and from Aldebaran by less than 7∞. It is not quite the 2020 Great Conjunction, but it will still produce a lovely celestial grouping.


The month of March is best known for the spring equinox which occurs on March 20th this year. This date marks the start of astronomical spring for those of us in the Northern hemisphere and we all begin to feel the increasing warmth of the Sun and the lengthening of daylight, as the seasons change. The full March Moon this year falls on March 28th, a week or so after the equinox. This full Moon is known by many names such as the Worm Moon, the Crow Moon (both Native American), and the Lenten Moon (Christian).


For those who rise before dawn, on March 6th, Mercury reaches Greatest Western Elongation. This is when Mercury achieves its largest angular distance west of the Sun and when it is easiest to actually see this orb in our pre-dawn sky, leading the Sun by a whopping 27∞. Look for this planet low on your ESE horizon between 5:30 and 6:00a.m. Binoculars will help!


Your donations to STARS to STEM will support more local astronomy public engagement in Niantic and our surrounding communities. Donations can be made by mail to STARS to STEM, Inc. P.O. Box 616, Niantic, CT. 06357 or on-line at http://www.starstostem.org. Thank you !

*Dr. Leslie Brown is Associate Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Connecticut College. She is Education Director of STARS to STEM, Inc.