Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Magnificent Moon - Part 2

Moonrise, Sunset, and Lunar Eclipses


A spectacular sunset.  We only see this brilliant display when there are clouds!
This month we experience not just a gorgeous supermoon, tomorrow evening (Sunday, September 27th) the Full Moon will also undergo a complete or Total Lunar Eclipse.  What could be more exciting for an astronomy buff!

The sunset this evening was truly glorious...  just enough thin clouds were scattered across the sky to capture and reflect the last red rays of the sun as the Moon rose over the hills behind our home.

The Sun set at 7:01 PM here in Northern California and dusk was gorgeous with red and purple ribbons crisscrossing the sky in the west.

I loved the way the moonlight was reflected on the clouds.
Moonrise this evening was at 6:15 PM, just before sunset and the Moon was well over the horizon and visible over the hills when I first spotted it opposite the sunset.  I took some truly magical photos between 7:15 and 7:30 PM of both the moonrise and this evening's gorgeous sunset.  The Moon will continue to rise in the sky, getting to its peak or passing over the "meridian", shortly after midnight.  It will set in the morning at 7:39 AM.

Early risers can see the nearly full, huge supermoon drift toward the horizon and then hover briefly as it sets in the morning sky shortly after the sun rises at 7:02 AM.

The moon at dusk, shortly after sunset.
The vivid colors of this evening's sunset bode well for tomorrow's weather.  It's an old wives tale and a total fallacy that dust or pollution makes a sunset prettier.  In truth, vivid, colorful sunsets occur when the air to the west is clear and since that air will be over you the following morning, it almost always signals good weather for the following day.

Tomorrow's moon will rise at 6:56 PM, peak and turn full at 7:51 PM where we live on the West Coast and at 10:51 PM on the East Coast.  During this time, we will be privileged to see a total lunar eclipse (see details for viewing below).

On a side note, all full moons bring with them higher than usual tides, but when the Moon is at perigee -- that is, at its closest point to Earth -- the tides are even higher.  This is generally only a problem if it happens coincidentally at a time when a strong end of summer storm brings high winds and high waves.  Then serious beach erosion and damage to critical dunes can occur.  The New England seacoast is no stranger to these problems.

Understanding a Lunar Eclipse  

What makes this month's full moon is that it coincides with a complete or total eclipse that will occur with moonrise on Sunday evening, September 27th.

A lunar eclipse occurs when a full moon is in direct alignment with the Earth and the Sun with the Earth in the center and the Sun and the Moon on opposite sides of the Earth.

Most months, at the time of the full moon, the Moon's orbit is tilted with respect to the Earth and Sun and it passes above or below the point at which the three celestial bodies would be in an essentially straight line.  About every 6 month, conditions may be right for a lunar eclipse but it can only be seen when the full moon rises at or after dark in the part of the world that is viewing the Moon over the horizon.  We are fortunate that that will happen tomorrow night (September 27th) and the eclipse will be visible throughout the entire Western Hemisphere and portions of the eclipse will also be visible in much of Europe and western Africa. 

Where we live in Northern California, the penumbral eclipse will begin before moonrise and we will not see it as the Moon will still be below the horizon. The Moon will rise at 6:56 PM and the eclipse will be almost full at that point.  It will reach maximum fullness at 7:11 PM and the total eclipse will last until 8:23 PM. The partial eclipse (as the Moon passes out of the Earth's dark shadow) will end roughly an hour later (9:27 PM) and the penumbral phase of the eclipse will end at 10:22 PM.

This Infographic, from, shows the positions of the Sun, Earth, and Moon during a total lunar eclipse as well as the distribution of the shadows formed by the Earth as it block's the Sun's rays.  

The shadow cast by the Earth is cone shaped. and when the Moon passes into the Earth's shadow, it passes into the lighter shadow - the penumbra - that extends out from the circumference of the Earth.  

When the Moon moves directly behind the Earth, it is in full shadow, the umbra or darkest part of the shadow.  

After a period of about an hour or so of "totality", where the Moon is in deep shadow behind the Earth, it continues to move through its orbit and once again enters the penumbra. 

During the time that the Moon is in total shadow, it is still visible, but appears vividly colored, often a coppery or red color.  In order to be able to see this phenomenon, you must be on the side of the Earth oriented toward the moon, actually in the umbra, where it will be night time.  If you are geographically on the side of the Earth facing the sun, it will be daytime, the moon will be behind the Earth, and you will be unable to see the eclipse (except on TV or the computer!).

The best place to view the eclipse is where you have a good view of the horizon as the Moon is rising in the East.  The Sun will set in the West at almost the same time that the Moon is rising in the East.  You may be able to see another vivid sunset opposite the spectacular rise of the Moon on the opposite side of the sky.  Followers of the blog can check in here for my own photographs of the Moon throughout the evening.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Magnificent Moon - Part 1

July's full moon, with clouds dancing across the sky.

The Magnificent Moon

This is a special time for astronomy buffs. It began in July, when we had an extra full moon in the summer season - two full moons in the month of July.  The first was at the beginning of the month (July 2nd) and the second occurred on July 31st.

This rare phenomenon, called a "Blue Moon" happens every once in a ... blue moon.  We last saw a blue moon in August 2012.   It occurs every three to four years and it happens when there are four full moons in a season. 

Because the lunar cycle is 29.5 days in length, when there is a "blue moon", typically there will be two full moons in a given calendar month: the first full moon early in the month, usually on the first or second day of the month, with the next full moon occurring on or before the last date of the same calendar month. This latter definition, popularizing by a 1946 article in Sky and Telescope magazine, was officially corrected in 1999 to reflect the association of a Blue Moon with a season.
We are also in the period of the Supermoons.  Supermoons happen when a full moon is at its closest point to the Earth during the full moon phase, making it appear unusually large. Last summer we saw several spectacular Supermoons.  Although August's Supermoon was impressive, the next Supermoon, which occurs on September 27th, is going to be beyond spectacular since it will also feature a total lunar eclipse. 

Full Moons and Their Names  

Many cultures, including the Chinese, Celtic, Old English, and Native American tribes have given names to each monthly full moon.  Moon phases and cycles allowed early cultures to keep track of the seasons and they served as a calendar of sorts.  

The best known names for the monthly full moons originated with the Algonquin tribes who lived in New England and westward through New York to Lake Superior. The European settlers adopted the Native American habit of naming the moons and invented some of their own names, all of which have been passed down through subsequent generations.

Every full moon had many names, depending on the culture and North American Indian tribe, but the following list are some of the most common.  

January:  Wolf Moon

The January full moon was named for the
howling of wolves that can be heard echoing in the cold winter air.  Some tribes also referred to the January full moon as the Snow Moon. 

February:  Snow Moon, Hunger Moon

The February full moon was most popularly called the Snow Moon.  A few tribes referred to the January moon by this name but historically, the winter snow fall peaked in February, accounting for the name.  Another common name, the Hunger Moon, referred to the very difficult hunting conditions that resulted from harsh weather and the decreased population of animals that were a source of food during the long winter and which became more scarce by the end of the season.   

March:  Worm Moon, Sap Moon, Lenten Moon

The March snow melt softened the ground revealing earthworm activity, an early and important sign of spring.  In New England especially, the running of the sap in the maple trees gave rise to the name the Sap Moon. Early Christian settlers often referred to it as the Lenten Moon, since the last moon of winter generally preceded Easter.

April: The Pink Moon, Egg Moon, Fish Moon, Sprouting Grass Moon

Among the first spring flowers to appear are the pink wild ground phlox which cover the meadows and fields in early April, hence the name, the Pink Moon.  Other common names reflected other early signs of spring.  Birds built nests and began to lay eggs (the Egg Moon), fish woke from hibernation and began to procreate as well (the Fish Moon), and the greening of pastures was welcomed with the name the Sprouting Grass Moon. 

May:   Flower Moon, Corn Planting Moon, Milk Moon

Prolific spring blooms are credited for the most popular name for May’s full moon, the Flower Moon.  Corn was planted in May (Corn Planting Moon), and spring calves meant more cows producing milk for the first time (Milk Moon).  

June:  Strawberry Moon, Rose Moon

Strawberry crops peak mid-June and the Strawberry Moon is one of the few moons that is virtually universal among most cultures and tribes in North America and Europe. However, more recently it is also referred to as the Rose Moon since rose blooming peaks this month as well in the Northern Hemisphere.

July:  Buck Moon, Thunder Moon

The Buck Moon gets its name from the velvety antlers that buck deer begin growing in July.  In New England, frequent late afternoon thunderstorms made the name the Thunder Moon popular. 

August: The Sturgeon Moon, Grain Moon, Red Moon

The Sturgeon Moon takes its name from the freshwater sturgeon, an important food fish that was in season in the month of August. The hazy August skies often resulted in a reddish tinge to the moon, prompting the name, the Red Moon.  And summer grain harvests are reflected in the name the Grain Moon.

September:  Harvest Moon

Although many vegetable and grain harvests occur earlier in the summer, most of the staple foods and those foods such as root vegetables which were stored for winter use were harvested in September.   The Harvest Moon had a practical value as well.  With the days becoming shorter and shorter, the Harvest Moon enabled farmers to work late into the evening harvesting crops.  The name Harvest Moon relied less on the calendar and more on the timing of the autumn equinox, which occasionally falls in October.   

October:  Hunter's Moon

After a summer of grazing and feeding, deer, pheasant, partridge, and another wild game are ready for hunting and eating. The fall hunting season inspired the name for the Hunter’s Moon. 

November:  Beaver Moon

The Beaver Moon was so named for the beavers who would be trapped for their furs which provided warmth during the cold New England winters.

December:  Cold Moon, Long Night Moon

The long cold winter nights inspired names for the December full moon.  The Cold Moon no doubt speaks to the cold December nights and the winter solstice, which is the longest night of the year, lends its name to the Long Night Moon.

The Phases of the Moon


As the Moon orbits around the Earth, part or all of it is blocked from our view by its relative position to both the Earth and the Sun.   One half of the Moon -- the side facing the Sun -- is always illuminated by the Sun.  The light we see is not generated by the Moon; it is the Sun's light reflecting off the Moon. 

The part of the Moon that is in shadow during the phases of the Moon is the portion of the Moon that is not illuminated by the Sun.  The Moon is not being shadowed by the Earth.  That only happens during a Lunar Eclipse, when the Moon passes through the Earth's shadow.  [That will be explained more fully in The Magnificent Earth - Part 2.]

When we view the Moon, we are seeing the Moon from an angle that forms between the Earth, Moon and Sun as the Moon revolves around the Earth.  Although the side of the Moon facing the Sun is always illuminated, if we are positioned parallel to the Moon, for example, we will only see the half of the illuminated side of the Moon facing us.  That is a Quarter Moon.

When the Earth, Moon and Sun are in a straight line, we either see all of the Moon or none of the Moon.  If the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun, we see none of the illuminated side of the Moon - which ias .  That is the "New Moon".  

At the time of the New Moon, the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun and it rises and sets with the Sun and it's path across the sky during the day is obscured by the Sun's glare.  Most months, the Earth, Moon, and Sky are not lined up in a perfect line;  if they were, we would have a Solar Eclipse.  In fact, that rarely happens, and even when it does, it is only visible at certain points on the Earth.  For a Solar Eclipse to occur, the line-up has to be exact and totality occurs only along a very narrow plane.  

The Moon's orbit is elliptic in shape and tilted with respect to the Earth's. Because of the elliptic shape of the Moon's orbit, even when the Moon is between the Earth and Sun, it is rarely close enough to the Earth to be large enough to fully block the Sun and place the Earth in shadow.  More often than not, at the New Moon, the Moon is in close proximity to the Sun but instead of obscuring the view of the Sun, the Sun's brilliance obscures our view of the Moon.

This is the best time of the month to sky watch and to look for different celestial features.  Without the Moon's light, reflected from the Sun, you can see the sky in greater detail.  Meteor showers that occur during the New Moon or Waxing or Waning Crescents are much more dramatic than those that occur during the Full Moon, when the light from the Moon can make it difficult to see all but the brightest shooting stars.

Image credit:
As the Moon proceeds through it's orbit around the Earth, more of the illuminated side is revealed as the Waxing Crescent.  The Waxing Crescent is the sliver of the right side of the Moon that gradually increases in the days following the New Moon.  Each night, the left edge gradually gets larger until the entire Moon is revealed at the Full Moon. 

At the quarter point, the First Quarter shows the Moon as a semicircle extending from that right side of the Moon.  Between the First Quarter and the Full Moon, we see more of the Moon revealed along that left edge and as it bulges into something akin to an oval, that phase is referred to as the Gibbous Moon, or Waxing Gibbous,

If you are looking at the Moon through a telescope,  the best time and place to look at the landmarks on the moon is along the edge of the shadow, where the craters and other landmarks are heavily shadowed and stand out dramatically.  

Especially at the time of the Gibbous moons, you can see many of the landmarks very clearly.  

L: First Quarter (Credit:    R: Waxing Gibbous (Credit:

July, 2015, American Canyon, CA

The Full Moon occurs when the Earth is between the Moon and the Sun, with the Sun fully illuminating the visible surface of the Moon.  The alignment is approximate; if they are in an essentially parallel line, we have a Lunar Eclipse.  [The next Lunar Eclipse will occur on September 27th and will be discussed in the next post, The Magnificent Moon - Part 2.]  

Just as with the New Moon, the line up is skewed enough (actually, by about 180 degrees) due to the Moon's elliptical orbit so that the side of the Moon facing the Sun appears to be fully illuminated by sunlight and visible to us on Earth.  So even when we are seeing a Full Moon, the Moon that we see is not entirely round, although it appears that way to us on Earth.
We actually see only about half of the truly full moons in the Northern Hemisphere, since the other half are below the horizon at night.  But for several days on either side of the nearly "Full Moon", the reflected sunlight from the moon provides an adequate source of light for people to navigate and work outside, often with minimal or no other illumination.  

Photo Credit:
Following the Full Moon, in the waning phase of the Moon, the Moon follows the same sequence it did in the waxing phase, but in reverse order, of course.  The  Full Moon evolves into the Waning Gibbous and about a week later, we see the Third Quarter or Last Quarter Moon, and the Waxing Crescent.  As the Moon waxes, it waxes in the opposite direction of the waning Moon.  The left side of the Moon remains fully illuminated and the shadow forms and increases from the right side.

The Waxing Gibbous and Last Quarter moons often rise very late, after midnight, and therefore sets quite late, often after dawn.  It's not unusual to see the Waxing Gibbous and Last Quarter moons in the morning sky.

Waning Gibbous Moon and Last Quarter Moon (Credit: and Waning Crescent (Credit: 

In the next blog post, we'll look at what happens during a Lunar Eclipse, and what to expect when we see the next Total Lunar Eclipse that happens in conjunction with September's Supermoon in a little over a week from now.


Monday, August 31, 2015

Elusive Neptune

Neptune, the eighth and farthest planet from the sun passes closest to the Earth today in its orbit around the Sun.  The third largest planet, Neptune is unique among planets in that it's the only planet that can never be seen with an unaided eye.

Position of Neptune in Aquarius.  Credit:
While the other planets may appear as dim to bright spots among the stars, coasting along so deep into the far reaches of the Solar System, even when its orbit brings it to its closest point to Earth, Neptune is still only visible as a dim speck, even with the help of binoculars or a telescope.  And even then, it can be elusive.  It is so much dimmer than the dimmest stars in the sky, it's often only spotted if one is fortunate to have a an area free of sky pollution in which to sky watch and is familiar enough with the stars in the surrounding area to recognize it.

Over the next couple of days, our planet Earth's orbit will pass directly between Neptune and the Sun.  Looking at the three on edge, they will appear with their equators in line across the Solar System.  This alignment is referred to as opposition – opposite the sun in Earth’s sky - that planet is the closest it will be to the Earth for the year. Typically, the planet will shine brightly and be easy to

Locating Neptune in Aquarius       Credit:

Neptune's opposition will occur on September 1st and on that night, the planet will rise in the east around sunset, climb to its peak in the sky by midnight, and then set in the west around sunrise.

The best way to locate Neptune is to first find the constellation Aquarius (The Water Carrier).  Spatially speaking, it's closer than the constellation and should appear in front of it.  Then you need to consult a detailed Star Cart so that you know all of the stars that are ordinarily visible in that area. Then look for that dimmest of specks that doesn't belong. 

 Facts About Neptune:

A Neptonian Day is about 18 hours, with the ice giant spinning like a dervish on its axis.
By contrast, it's year - the time to orbit the Sun - is roughly 165 Earth years.
It's the stormiest planet with wind speeds that break the sound barrier.
Eventually, it's strong gravitational pull will destroy its moon, Triton.
It appears as a

Neptune as photographed by Voyager 2       Credit:
In 1989, the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past Neptune and sent back the first close-up images of the planet and its moons, now numbering a total of nineteen.  It's the only spacecraft to ever have visited the planet.  Additional images of Neptune have been provided by the Hubble Space Telescope and some of the larger ground-based telescopes.

The Voyager 2 flyby revealed Neptune appearing as a bright, azure blue planet with a deep blue spot not unlike Jupiter's red spot.  The blue color is due to the presence of methane in its outer atmosphere.  Planetary "color" is a function of reflected light from the Sun.  When the Sun's light hits the atmosphere, the methane absorbs the light in the red spectrum and reflects back the blue light, giving the planet the appearance of a bright blue orb. 


Space Facts
Universe Today


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Fire: A Potentially Deadly Consequence of the Drought

Grass and brush fires are often spread even more quickly by brisk winds.
With the severe drought that we are experiencing in California, wildfires are a constant threat.  South of us, in both the Central Valley and in San Diego County near where Steve's brother David lives, large brush fires have burned tens of thousands of acres of meadow and forest land and damaged and in some cases destroyed homes and personal property. 

With water at a premium, firefighting is challenging and consumes critical water stores from an already severely depleted supply.   Berkeley was one of several cities and towns that cancelled municipal fireworks events due to concerns about fire and the amount of water - an expensive commodity these days - it would take to hose down areas that would be at risk for igniting or to fight a fire if one erupted. Here in American Canyon, the fire engines and firefighters stood ready to respond to any incidents stemming from the city's fireworks display.

On the night of the 4th of July, a wind-fueled grass fire that involved 320 acres in Vacaville threatened 200 homes. It was completely contained, however, and a teenager was arrested on Friday and charge with causing the fire.  Some news reports attribute the cause of the fire to illegal fireworks. 

The hills were a verdant green in early spring.  Lack of rain has killed the grass.
Tonight we had our first (and I'm hoping only) fire scare. Behind our apartment complex is open space. A railway and road run past, and beyond that are hills that border the valley.  They were green in the early spring but with the drought, the grass has dried so the hills are covered with dry grass, weeds, and brush that is a dull wheat color. 

Despite the publicity and stern warnings from the police department, kids have been lighting off fireworks and we've all been concerned about the potential for a fire being ignited.

I looked out of the sliders and was shocked to see thick brown smoke.
At about 7 PM this evening, I was watching TV and resting when a helicopter flying close by overhead caught my attention.  I looked out through the sliders and was shocked to see dense, gray-brown billowing smoke coming from one of the hills nearest the complex. I grabbed my cameras and headed upstairs to get a better look from the landing. 

A grass fire was moving very quickly across a field behind the ruins of an old cement and basalt plant.  The plant has been abandoned since the 1970's but the city has been considering a plan to develop the area and the historic buildings into a  town center. I'm not sure where they are in the process, but the buildings are considered historically important, and would make a unique and interesting city center, no matter how the city planned to develop the area.

A California Highway Patrol helicopter alerted me to the fire.
The helicopter bore the markings of the California Highway Patrol and at the point that I became aware of the fire, the American Canyon Fire Department was already on scene.  As I watched, more fire trucks and firefighters arrived.  They quickly brought the flames under control and remained on scene until at least 8:30 PM, when I finally went back inside.  At that point, I could still see two trucks (out of a total of at least four plus an emergency response vehicle) present and several firefighters carefully walking the burned area, but the fire trucks had begun to leave so clearly they were wrapping up the scene.

Distressing to me was that just a short time after all of the fire safety staff cleared the scene, I heard some kids out in the back parking lot of our apartment complex firing off rockets and other fireworks -- totally illegal and very risky given the amount of easily combustible dry grass.  Especially after a fire so close, one would have thought that their parents would use some common sense.  

The area at the back of the complex where the fire broke out.  The garages extend from the fence that separates the property from the railroad tracks beyond.  The low buildings, rotunda building, and silos are all part of the abandoned cement and basalt factory.  The fire spread across the grassy expanse beyond the buildings.
Three of at least four fire apparatus that responded to the fire.
Firefighters controlling the spread of the mostly grass fire.
I watched as fire moved across the field.  These fires often spread quickly when fueled by the strong winds that are typical of this part of the valley.
Firefighters extinguish the fire at the leading edge where it was spreading across the field.  They had this area of the fire out within minutes.
The field behind the abandoned buildings where the grass fire broke out.
The fire extended across the expanse behind the abandoned buildings. Multiple firefighting units brought it quickly to a standstill.
The sun was beginning to set as the firefighters wrapped up their efforts and inspected for any remaining flames or embers.
Firetruck leaving, moving past the rotunda building.  The buildings are covered in graffiti. Hopefully they will be restored one day and be the centerpiece of a new city center.