April 15: Taxes and a lunar eclipse

Along with a visit from the tax man, April 15 brings the first of four consecutive total lunar eclipses (a tetrad) in 2014 and 2015.

Tuesday morning's eclipse is followed by another eclipse about six months later on Oct. 8, and a third eclipse six months after that on April 4, 2015. The final lunar eclipse in the tetrad is on Sept. 28, 2015.

A total lunar eclipse happens when the moon passes all the way through Earth's shadow, or umbra, causing the moon to slowly fade to a dark rust hue. The moon looks red here for the same reason sunrises and sunsets do - because Earth's atmosphere adds a red tint to any sunlight passing through. During a total lunar eclipse, this red light from the Earth's atmosphere falls on the moon.

The eclipse will be visible throughout most of North America, South America and Australia. However, if you want to see it from the New London area, or elsewhere in the eastern time zone, you'll have to be awake in the 2 to 5 a.m. range. Astronomy likes to tease us with clouds and inconveniently timed spectacles, but still we roll out of bed, bundle up, and head outdoors for the chance to see something breathtaking.

There will be more to this show than a blood-red moon. During totality around 3 a.m., several spring constellations will be nicely situated. Brilliant blue Spica, around magnitude 1, will sit just two degrees west of the eclipsed red moon, forming a nice contrast.

One nice aspect about lunar eclipses is how languid they are. On Tuesday morning, totality will last for a leisurely hour and 18 minutes, whereas totality lasts just a few fleeting minutes during a solar eclipse.



April 8 - Mars at opposition. The red planet will make its closest approach to Earth and its face will be fully illuminated by the sun. A medium-sized telescope will show some dark details on the orange surface, and possibly one or both of the white polar ice caps.

April 15 - Full moon.

April 22, 23 - Lyrids meteor shower peaks. The Lyrids is an average shower with around 20 meteors per hour at most. It happens every year when Earth passes through dust particles left behind by comet Thatcher, which was discovered in 1861. Look for bright dust trails that last several seconds. Light from the second quarter moon will block the less bright meteors. Best views will be from a dark location after midnight the morning of April 23. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Lyra, but can appear anywhere in the sky.

April 29 - New moon. The moon will be directly between the Earth and the Sun and will not be visible from Earth. Observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters tonight, when there's no moonlight to interfere.


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