This April is rich in astronomical events. Among them are two that capture our attention most: The opposition of Mars on April 8 and a total eclipse of the Moon during the night of April 14 to 15.
A total lunar eclipse
After a hiatus of several years, a total eclipse of the Moon will at long last be visible in Quebec during the night of April 14 to 15. Following the event’s unimpressive prelude, during which the full moon passes through Earth’s penumbra, the Moon will gradually move through our planet’s shadow, beginning at 1:58 A.M. EDT — during the middle of the night for those who observe it. The total phase will get underway at 3:06 A.M.; mid-eclipse will be at 3:45; and totality will end at 4:24, lasting 78 minutes in all. This will be followed by another series of partial phases that will last until 5:33 in the morning, as our satellite gradually exits Earth’s shadow. During totality the Moon will acquire a dark red colour, when it is lit by a thin band of sunlight, reddened as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere.
In southwest Quebec, the eclipse will unfold under slightly less-than-ideal circumstances, not only because of the event’s timing, but also because the Moon will appear low on the horizon. As well, when the Moon sets and the Sun rises, the eclipse will, technically, not have concluded: Dawn will begin as totality ends and the sky will grow lighter as the closing partial phases ensue. To take advantage of the optimum viewing circumstances, we recommend that observers concentrate their efforts on the first half of the eclipse. The opening partial phases will give way to totality as the Moon is completely engulfed by Earth’s shadow. During the period from 2:00 to 3:30 A.M. the Moon will sit between 30 and 20 degrees above the southwest horizon, so it’s vital that the view in this direction be unobstructed… And remember, lunar eclipses are completely harmless to the eyes.
Another noteworhy fact: After a gap of more than three years, this eclipse will be the first of a “tetrad” — a series of four successive total lunar eclipses that will occur at 6-month intervals until September 2015. All will be visible, at least in part, from southern Quebec; the next will take place on the night of October 8, 2014.
Meanwhile, on April 29, the Moon will take part in an annular solar eclipse. Our satellite will pass between the Earth and Sun but it won’t obscure the solar disk completely: Instead, a ring of sunlight, or annulus, will surround the Moon for nearly 50 seconds. It’s doubtful that many people will observe this event since it is only visible from a small part of the antartic continent. However, Australians will be witness to a beautiful partial solar eclipse.
The opposition of Mars
For Mars aficionados, the period surrounding opposition is special since the planet is visible all night long. It’s also the time when Mars is brightest and has the largest apparent diameter — optimum conditions for observing the Red Planet with a telescope. Mars arrives at opposition on April 8 of this year, at a distance of slightly more than 92 million kilometers from Earth. The Martian summer began around mid-February and the planet’s northern hemisphere is currently tilted toward us.
To find the Red Planet, look for it in Virgo above the bright star, Spica: both can be seen rising early in the evening over the east-southeast horizon. During the nights of April 13 & 14, a nearly-full Moon will appear beneath Mars.
Optimum conditions for observing the Red Planet are rare... One should take advantage of this opposition since the next one won’t happen until May 22, 2016.
Other planets are also visible this April. Jupiter shines among the stars of Gemini and is located high in the southwest at twilight. On April 5, 6 & 7, the first quarter moon will appear near Jupiter in the evening sky. Saturn, a favourite among many observers, is visible in the southeast around the middle of the night. The full moon will be in Saturn’s vicinity on April 16. And finally, for early-birds, the dazzling planet Venus rises an hour-and-a-half before the Sun and dominates the southeast horizon at dawn. A thin lunar crescent will appear near Venus on the mornings of April 25 & 26.