Ps. 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Well, I just couldn't resist. The skies were remarkably clear and the weatherman promised the temperature would not drop much below 30 degrees so I decided to join some friends in Ames to view and photograph the April 15th total eclipse of the moon. Never mind that I left Dallas Texas shortly after 8 A.M. Monday morning and arrived home about 10:00 P.M. Deb and I unpacked all of the luggage and then I re-packed the car with telescope and camera equipment and drove an hour to Adams Observatory to setup and get ready for the beginning of the eclipse at about 2 A.M. What can I say? The lure of clear skies and relatively warm temperatures after the long cold winter were just too much for me to resist!
Collage of the pictures taken of the April 15th lunar eclipse by Jim Bonser.
I must say that I am glad I decided to go. Altogether, about 16 people showed up to watch the moon plunge into the Earth's shadow. Some brought cameras, some brought binoculars and some just brought themselves. Unfortunately, no one brought hot cocoa - rats! At least the warming room in the observatory was comfortable - the weatherman was off by a few degrees; it got down to around 28 degrees by the time mid-eclipse arrived but I had my nice warm snowmobile suit so it was not too bad.
The nice thing about lunar eclipses is that they progress nice and slow. This gives you time to experiment with different exposure times and make small corrections if your telescope mount is not perfectly polar aligned. It also gives time to chat with people and share camera exposure settings. All in all it was well worth missing a few hours of sleep. Here in Iowa we miss quite a few eclipses because clouds interfere. One year my son John and I drove all the way to Ottumwa to try to get out from under the clouds that the weatherman assured us did not extend that far south. Sadly, the weatherman was wrong, but it was a fun trip with John, stopping every so often to see if the moon was in the clear. We did not get any pictures that time, just a good story.
If you chose not to get up to see this eclipse, you will get another chance on October 8th. The skies are often clear in early October so there is a pretty good chance we will get to see it. You may have heard that this eclipse was the first of 4 total lunar eclipses in a row, also known as an eclipse tetrad. Eclipse tetrads are not what you would call rare, but they are not all that common either. The last one occurred a decade ago and the next one won't happen until 2032. What would be really rare is being able to see all of them from Iowa, lol!
Planets to enjoy this month are little Mercury which will reach easternmost elongation on May 25. Since Pluto was disinvited from the Planet Club by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, Mercury now holds the title of the smallest planet. Mercury's diameter is about 3,032 miles. (Pluto is about 1,500 miles in diameter) The best time to spot this tiny planet which is just a little bigger than our moon, which is about 2,160 miles across, will be around 9:30 P.M. a few days before and after the 25th. It will only be about 10 to 12 degrees above the horizon depending what time you are looking. It will be higher before 9:30 but the skies will also be brighter making it harder to spot. Mercury will be shining at magnitude .6, not bad for Mercury.
A little higher and bit more to the south Jupiter really shines at -1.9 magnitude. When it gets dark enough to see them, Jupiter will make a nice right triangle with the twin stars Castor and Pollux that mark the heads of the twins in the constellation Gemini. Jupiter is heading for the horizon fast so don't miss any opportunities to view the king of the planets this month before it gets too low and atmospheric seeing makes it impossible to see and details in Jupiter's beautiful cloud belts.
Next in line as we travel eastward along the ecliptic is bright red Mars. Mars will not set until well after midnight this month so this is a good time to see it. Mars was closest to us last month a few days after it reached opposition on April 8. Mars is still very bright and a good telescope target this month.
A little farther east in Libra is magnificent Saturn. Saturn shines with a distinctive golden hue that you will get to recognize over time. Saturn reaches opposition on May 10th which also happens to be Astronomy Day this year. If you have a telescope, I can't think of a better opportunity for taking your scope to a public place and giving people a view of those incredible rings. For some it may be the first time they see the rings in person and as we amateur astronomers know, it is a sight you remember for the rest of your life.