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What's Up Above? April Stargazing


By “Astro” Mark Laurin

 

George Harrison wrote prophetically, “little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter.”  For some, spring announces and marks the end of loneliness and the arrival of cherry blossoms, tulips and crocus extended green thumbs, all heralding a season of renewal and rebirth. Winter is over. Yet, for us folks living in the high country, spring is still a hope, a season far off in the distance.

Yet, on this April 8th the title of that revered George Harrison song becomes even bolder and brighter; right after the Sun goes dark.  “Here Comes the Sun!” The event of the month, and the year, and the next 21 years for North America is the Great North American Total Solar Eclipse. With solar safe eclipse glasses in hand and a song in your head, plan now to get out on the 8th and look up and witness the synchronous magic of our solar system.

 

Total Solar Eclipse, April 8th 

 

This is it, the granddaddy of them all!  On this day the Moon will pass in front of the Sun creating a total eclipse of the Sun, visible from Mexico, the eastern contiguous United States and eastern Canada.  Amazingly, pretty much all of North America will experience a partial solar eclipse; except for those squarely on the path of the Totality.  (That’s where you’ll find me, standing on the center line of totality in Kingsland, Texas!)

With Denver as our reference point, here’s what you can expect. First, pretty much the entire state of Colorado we’ll see a partial solar eclipse.  The show begins at 11:37am with the Sun reaching the eclipse's maximum of 64%, at 12:37pm in Silverthorne.  From there the eclipse begins to recede, coming to a conclusion at 1:54pm.  Here’s an image of the eclipse at maximum and what 64% of coverage looks like.  For the rest of the state, the western slope will experience 58% coverage to 75% coverage at maximum on the eastern plains.

Are astrophysics and scientists paying attention to this solar eclipse? You bet they are. Solar eclipses have informed scientists about the curvature of the universe and now they’re paying particular attention to the CMEs (Coronal Mass Ejection). Essentially a CME is when the Sun is spewing an enormous amount of energy and magnetism into space. A CME was first observed during a solar eclipse in 968 by the Byzantine historian Leo Diaconus, observing it from Constantinople. Moreover, a total solar eclipse allows scientists the moment to observe and study the Sun’s corona, that wispy outer atmosphere of the Sun, responsible for these mass ejections. Why study CMEs? If one hits Earth directly, it will harm communication systems, power grids, access to Instagram, and astronauts in space. With the Sun blocked during a solar eclipse, these clouds of charged particles can be identified and analyzed.  Additionally, multiple huge radio telescopes will aim at the Sun on the 8th to study and measure how the Sun influences our ionosphere. Scientists know the ionosphere grows during daylight, and shrinks during night time. But, what happens during a total solar eclipse? Stay tuned.

Finally, a reminder akin to those you heard from your mother when crossing the street and a public service message from Astro Mark: NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN WITH YOUR NAKED EYES! NEVER! ONLY OBSERVE A SOLAR ECLIPSE USING APPROVED ECLIPSE GLASSES, OR THROUGH OPTICS WITH SOLAR FILTERS!  (Now I’ll sleep better having exclaimed this.)

 

Conjunction Ahead! It’s an Almost Cosmic Collision between the Moon, a Comet, Two Planets, and Two Star Clusters, April 10th  

Right on the heels of the solar eclipse, here’s another celestial event you must see. It’s an accident waiting to happen.  You’ll want to have your binoculars ready to witness these near collisions. Needless to say, there is plenty afoot on the evening of April 10th in the western sky.

To begin, an astronomical conjunction is when two or more objects appear close to each other to share the same spot in the night sky.  Basically, the same “east-west” position in the night sky. This evening around 7:30pm the planets Uranus, Jupiter, a New Moon, the star clusters Pleiades and Hyades, and the comet P12/Pons-Brooks are all heading right towards one another. You’ll need to be ready since your window to observe all of these objects together is brief.  Look west at sunset for the bright planet Jupiter. From there draw an imaginary line up and to the left a touch, one fist width to find the Pleiades star cluster. It’s easy to find, with its five bright primary stars. It will look like a mini Big Dipper.  To the left of Pleiades, is the star cluster, Hyades. Now go back to the line you drew from Jupiter to the Pleiades to find comet P12/Pans-Brooks. Look below Jupiter towards the horizon. Since the tail of the comet is getting longer as it nears the Sun, you should easily spot it. This is more difficult to do if you’re under light polluted skies.  Take a moment and linger on the comet as you observe it through your binoculars. Avert your vision to the limb of your field of view though the binoculars to see more details of the comet. You want to find both the comet’s debris tail as well as its ion tail. To find Uranus, return to Jupiter, and a pinky finger width above it, you’ll find Uranus. It will be tiny, with a distinct green color to it. To the right of Uranus, there is the New Moon, trying hard not to be seen. It might even be a tiny thin crescent visible when you look.  That’s five objects in conjunction! It’s an accident waiting to happen, so you better get out and watch these near misses. 

 

Lyrid Meteor Shower, Peak Showers April 22nd

Can there be a better way to celebrate Earth Day than to have the cosmos ignite your night with a meteor shower?  Here is one way you can honor, give thanks, and in a way show gratitude to our home, Mother Earth, Gaia, this Earth Day, April 22nd by observing this meteor shower raining upon it. Usually the name of the meteor shower indicates the constellation from which the meteors will radiate.  For the Lyrids, that’s misleading as the meteors will radiate from the constellation Hercules, neighbor to the constellation Lyra. This is a meteor shower made for the late nighters and earlier risers amongst us. The shower becomes visible at 1am rising above the eastern horizon. It will then arch around the celestial North Pole during the night and at 6am the radiant point is high in the west sky next to the highest and brightest star, Vega. That’s the point from where the meteors will radiate. The best estimates indicate that the shower will produce its best display at day break, with approximately 17 shooting stars per hour.  The Lyrids aren’t the largest meteor swarm, but they’re worth checking out. So get up early that morning and be appreciative for the Earth we stand on and the universe surrounding us this Earth Day. Mother Earth will appreciate you.

 

Full Moon, April 23rd 

Throughout history, a full Moon is notable.  At times, it was a harbinger of both good and evil. For followers of the Catholic faith, the April full Moon is known as the Paschal Moon.  The appearance of this full Moon establishes the date for Easter as the Sunday after the first full Moon of the month.  The Farmers Almanac refers to the April full Moon as the Pink Moon.  The name is not due to the Moon taken on a pink hue color, however.   Rather the name corresponds with the early springtime blooms of wild ground phlox, native to North America.  This is because it is one of the first flowers to bloom in spring and has pink pedals.  Specifically, for the Lakota, the April full Moon is called, “Moon When the Ducks Come Back.”  For the Dakota Native Americans, it is “Moon When the Geese Lay Eggs.”  Finally, for the Algonquin, it was the “Breaking Ice Moon.”

      

Whether April brings a breath of freshness and hope, or the ceaseless weight of a winter, step outside into the night, and look up.  Find renewal, solace, and hope.  And don’t miss observing some of the solar eclipse on the 8th.  Make it a family and friends’ affair, and watch this wonderful movement of the cosmos unfold together. Just promise me, one way or the other, that you won’t let this eclipse pass over you without taking a moment to see it (wearing eclipse safe glasses) and ponder its significance to humanity throughout the millennia.  Oh, and mark your calendar now, the August 12, 2045 total solar eclipse's path of totality crosses directly through Denver! That's right. So, while winter is long and lonely, and eclipses’ dim and darken our world, take heart and respite in knowing that Mr. Harrison was correct, “Here comes the Sun!”   

 

 

Clear skies to you!

 

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