January’s Evening Eclipse and Morning Conjunctions

Have you ever wondered how eclipses occur? You can model the Earth-Moon system using just a couple of small balls and a measuring stick to find out! The “yardstick eclipse” model shown here is set up to demonstrate a lunar eclipse. The “Earth” ball (front, right) casts its shadow on the smaller “Moon” ball (rear, left). You can also simulate a solar eclipse just by flipping this model around. You can even use the Sun as your light source! Find more details on this simple eclipse model at bit.ly/yardstickeclipse

Observers in the Americas were treated to an evening total lunar eclipse in January. Early risers could spot some striking morning conjunctions between Venus, Jupiter and the moon late in January. A total lunar eclipse occurred on Jan. 20 and was visible from start to finish for observers located in North and South America. This eclipse might have been a treat for those with early bedtimes; western observers could even watch the whole event before midnight. Lunar eclipses take several hours to complete and are at their most impressive during total eclipse, or totality, when the moon is completely enveloped by the umbra, the darkest part of Earth’s shadow. During totality, the color of the moon can change to a bright orange or red, thanks to the sunlight bending through Earth’s atmosphere — the same reason we see pink sunsets. The eclipse began at 10:34 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, with totality beginning at 11:41 p.m. The total eclipse lasted for slightly more than an hour, ending at 12:43 a.m. The eclipse finished when the moon fully emerged from earth’s shadow by 1:51 a.m. Lunar eclipses offer observers a unique opportunity to judge how much the moon’s glare can interfere with stargazing. On eclipse night, the moon was in Cancer, a constellation made up of dim stars. Stargazers may have spotted a fuzzy cloud of stars relatively close to the moon; this is known as the “Beehive Cluster,” M44, or Praesepe. It’s an open cluster of stars thought to be about 600 million years old and a little under 600 light years distant. Praesepe looks fantastic through binoculars. Mars was visible in the evening and set before midnight. It was still bright but had faded considerably since its closest approach to Earth last summer. The red planet traveled through the constellation Pisces throughout January.Venus made notable early morning appearances beside both Jupiter and the moon later in the month. Venus and Jupiter approached each other during the third full week of January. Their conjunction occurred on the 22nd, when the planets appeared to pass just under 2 ½ degrees of each other. The next week, Venus was in a close conjunction with a crescent moon the morning of the 31st. For many observers, their closest pass — just over half a degree apart, or less than a thumb’s width held at arm’s length — occurred after sunrise. Since Venus and the Moon are so bright, you may still be able to spot them, even after sunrise. Have you ever seen Venus in the daytime? If you have missed Saturn this winter, the ringed planet returned at the end of the month, when it rose right before sunrise in Sagittarius. You can catch up on all of NASA’s current and future missions at nasa.gov

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