The night sky is never without its wonders. Just a few highlights this week include the return to maximum brightness of a remarkable variable star, Mira, a total lunar eclipse and a show of plants in the pre-dawn sky.
If you live in the West or Midwestern United States, you are in a good place to see the total lunar eclipse. This occurs Wednesday morning, January 31. Unfortunately for me, and others like me in the Eastern US, the eclipse is setting just as the main part of the eclipse is just getting started. Depending on where you live, you can still see a bit of it!
Actual local times of moonset vary depending on your location. Using my area in northeast Pennsylvania as an example, moonset and sunrise both occur at 7:13 a.m. EST. The partial phase of the eclipse begins at 6:48 a.m. That means if I can find a low western horizon, I can catch the setting Moon with what looks like a "bite" taken out of it! (The total phase starts at 7:51 a.m. after my sunrise and the moon has set, Mid-totality is at 8:30 and totality is over at 9:08 a.m. Partial eclipse is done at 10:12 a.m. EST.
Further east it gets tougher. From Boston, Massachusetts, for instance, sunrise is at 6:58 a.m. on the 31st, TEN MINUTES after the partial eclipse begins. Check your local sunrise times.
In the Plains states and Mississippi Valley, the moon will be totally eclipsed in the Earth's shadow as it descends in the western sky, before dawn.
This is also one of those so-called "supermoons" meaning the moon reaches full phase near its closest point to the Earth in its orbit. This makes the full moon a little bigger to unaided eyes, and a little brighter unless of course it has plunged into Earth shadow during an eclipse!
NOTE: Unlike at a solar eclipse, no eye protection is needed to view a lunar eclipse.
A variable star
Technically known as Omicron Ceti, the star Mira is within the large, dim constellation Cetus the Whale. This star pattern is in the south-southwest at around 8 p.m. on January evenings. Although moonlight will be an issue, you can use binoculars to help find Mira.
Cetus does have a moderately bright star, magnitude 2, which is named Diphda and marks the whales mouth. In the tail there is a remarkable star that comes and goes. Most of the year you wont find it, and then for a while, it brightens to nearly 2nd magnitude. This is Mira is a long-period red giant variable star. Located about 350 light years from Earth (thats how long it takes for its light to reach here), the stars variability was realized in 1596. In a period of 331 days, it rises from 10th magnitude (requiring about a three-inch wide telescope to see) to 2nd or 3rd magnitude, easily seen with unaided eyes. A telescope will show its distinct red color. This time its peak brightness is magnitude 3.5.
Speaking of tails, astronomers recently a faint tail of gas and dust trailing behind Mira as it speeds through space. It was found in ultraviolet light pictures taken by a satellite camera. The tail is nearly 13 light years long.
Another star within the outline of Cetus, known as Tau Ceti, is one of the suns nearest neighbors, only 11.8 light years away.
While you are out looking west for the moonset, look southeast before dawn. Planet Jupiter will be bright and well up; dimmer and reddish Mars is to the lower left.
Keep looking up!
— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at email@example.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.