April 2014 Starwatch

by Deane Morrison

The sky could get pretty red in April, as Mars makes its best showing of the year and the moon undergoes a total eclipse.

On the 8th, Earth finally catches up to Mars in the orbital race. At that moment the sun, Earth and the Red Planet will be lined up and Mars will appear opposite the sun in the sky, a position called opposition.

Mars is slightly farther than its average distance from Earth during oppositions, but it’s still bright enough to be well worth a look. It’ll rise in the east around sunset and stay up all night, traversing the sky with the bright star Spica, in Virgo.

“Opposite the sun” is also the position occupied by the full moon, and one week later a round moon visits Mars and Spica. Just after midnight on the 15th, the moon begins a total lunar eclipse that may turn its usually pearly face red as light from Earth’s sunsets and sunrises bends into Earth’s shadow. The moon begins to enter the dark inner shadow, or umbra, at 12:58 a.m. and is totally engulfed by 2:06 a.m. Totality lasts 79 minutes, and at 3:25 a.m. the moon starts to emerge from the umbra. The show ends at 4:33 a.m. Lunar eclipses generally occur twice a year, although not all are visible from our part of the world.

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