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Last modified: Friday, February 1, 2008

STAR TRAK

February features total lunar eclipse

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Feb. 1, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The full moon will turn an eerie color for several hours on the night of Feb. 20-21 as it passes through Earth's shadow in a total lunar eclipse. The entire event will be visible from all of North and South America as well as Europe, Africa and western Asia. Viewers will see the moon's color gradually change from bright silver to dull copper as Earth's shadow engulfs it.

Even if the weather is cold, this eclipse will be worth the effort to watch. It will happen during convenient evening hours, with the moon in fine view in a dark sky. The next total lunar eclipse won't happen until December 2010.

Moon

Photo by: NASA

Moon

The moon will first edge into our shadow at 8:43 p.m. EST on Feb. 20 (1:43 Universal Time on Feb. 21), but that won't be noticeable at first. It will take a while for the moon to darken enough for casual observers to see that something unusual is happening. The actual total eclipse will begin at 10 p.m. EST and end at 10:52 p.m. EST, providing almost an hour of totality to enjoy.

As totality begins and the sky near the moon grows darker, the surrounding stars of the constellation Leo the Lion will suddenly become visible. Leo's brightest star, Regulus, will be just above the eclipsed moon, and the yellow planet Saturn will be the same distance to the moon's lower left.

As the moon emerges from the shadow, it will gradually regain its normal color until it is finally in the clear again at 12:09 a.m. EST (5:09 Universal Time).

For details about where the eclipse will be visible, see http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/eclipse/.

The moon's unusual color during a total lunar eclipse is caused by the orange light of sunsets and sunrises around Earth's rim being bent into Earth's shadow by the atmosphere (the same way a prism works). This orange light then reflects from the moon's surface the way sunlight normally does, making the moon appear anywhere from dark red to bright orange. Binoculars will make the moon's color brighter and easier to see, but they are not necessary for viewing the eclipse.

Weather can have varying effects on the moon's color during an eclipse, and so can atmospheric pollution and debris of various kinds, so an exact prediction of the moon's appearance is not possible.

Planets

Saturn will be at its peak for the year during February. The planet with the famous rings will be opposite the sun on the night of Feb. 23-24, when it will rise in the east at nightfall and remain visible all night as it crosses the sky high in the south to set in the west at sunrise.

The best time to view Saturn through a telescope is when the planet is closest to us in its orbit, as it is now, and when it is high in the southern sky, above most of the turbulence in our atmosphere. That will be most of the night during February. Saturn's largest moon, the planet-sized Titan, can be seen with any telescope.

One way to find Saturn is by using the bright stars of constellations. To Saturn's right (west) will be the stars of the constellation Leo the Lion, with its brightest star, Regulus. Saturn will be three times brighter than Regulus.

Farther to Saturn's right will be the conspicuous constellation Orion the Hunter, with its four bright stars Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Rigel and Saiph at the corners and a line of three bright stars in the middle that forms Orion's belt. If this line of three stars is extended to the left (east), it points almost directly to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky of the Northern Hemisphere. More information on Orion is available at http://www.seds.org/messier/map/Ori.html.

Orion's orange star Betelgeuse joins with white Sirius and the white star Procyon to the east to form the Winter Triangle in the southern sky, with each side about equal in length. Shining above Betelgeuse will be the bright yellow star Capella in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. Capella, Rigel and Procyon are the second-, third- and fourth-brightest stars in the sky of the Northern Hemisphere. Add Saturn and Sirius, and it's easy to see why this part of the sky glitters so brilliantly.

Mars will be high in the sky for several hours after nightfall during February, but it will lose half of its brightness as it falls farther behind Earth in its orbit. By month's end, it will be about as bright as Saturn.

Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets, will be extremely close on Feb. 1. Find a place where trees and buildings won't block your view of the southeastern horizon and look low in the sky about 45 minutes before sunrise to see this spectacular conjunction. The two planets will pull apart quickly as the days go by, with Jupiter moving higher and Venus sinking into the glow of dawn. By month's end Jupiter will come up three hours before sunrise, while Venus will appear only an hour before the sun.

Mercury will be out of sight as it passes between Earth and the sun on Feb. 6, and then it will move into the morning sky. Around midmonth it will become visible low in the east-southeast, very close to much brighter Venus as sunrise approaches.

Moon phases

The moon will be new on Feb. 6, at first quarter on Feb. 13, full on Feb. 20 (with a total lunar eclipse) and at third quarter on Feb. 28.