'Space Monday': Total lunar eclipse, rocket launch, brush with Mars

'Space Monday': Total lunar eclipse, rocket launch, brush with Mars

Attention stargazers! You're about to be treated to a series of space spectacles.

"Space Monday," as astronomers have dubbed it, kicks off in the late afternoon when SpaceX, the private spaceflight company, is planning a rocket launch. The Falcon 9, carrying its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, is set to lift off at 4:58 p.m. EDT from Florida's Cape Canaveral. The event is being webcast live by both NASA and SpaceX and streamed on Space.com. (Update: The company scrubbed the launch due to a helium leak, keeping Falcon 9 grounded until at least Friday.)

After sunset, attention turns to Mars, which will pass within 57 million miles of Earth — its closest approach since January 2008, according to Space.com.

The sky show continues on April 15 at 1:58 a.m. EDT, when a full moon passes through Earth's amber shadow, producing a full lunar eclipse visible across North America.

The 78-minute total eclipse is the first in a tetrad, or a series of four consecutive total eclipses occurring at approximately six-month intervals. It will be followed by eclipses on Oct. 8, 2014, April 4, 2015, and Sept. 28, 2015 — all of them visible from all or part of the United States, NASA says.

Lunar eclipses occur, on average, about twice a year, but are rarely total. There are three types:

A penumbral eclipse is when the moon passes through the pale outskirts of Earth's shadow. It's so subtle, sky watchers often don't notice an eclipse is underway.

A partial eclipse is more dramatic. The moon dips into the core of Earth's shadow, but not all the way, so only a fraction of the moon is darkened.

A total eclipse, when the entire moon is shadowed, is best of all. The face of the moon turns sunset red for up to an hour or more as the eclipse slowly unfolds.

According to astronomer and noted eclipse expert Fred Espenak, the moon "can take on a dramatically colorful appearance from bright orange to blood red."

Why blood red?

"Imagine yourself standing on a dusty lunar plain looking up at the sky," Tony Phillips explains on NASA's Science News. "Overhead hangs Earth, nightside down, completely hiding the sun behind it. The eclipse is underway. You might expect Earth seen in this way to be utterly dark, but it's not. The rim of the planet is on fire! As you scan your eye around Earth's circumference, you're seeing every sunrise and every sunset in the world, all of them, all at once. This incredible light beams into the heart of Earth's shadow, filling it with a coppery glow and transforming the Moon into a great red orb."

According to Espenak, tetrads have become more frequent during the 21st century, the last coming in 2004 and the next slated for 2022-2023. Seven more are expected before 2100. Compare that with the 300-year period between 1600 to 1900, when there were no tetrads at all.

So how can you see the April 15 total lunar eclipse?

"One of the great things about lunar eclipses is that they are completely safe to view with the naked eye," Espenak writes on his website, MrEclipse.com. "No special filters are required to protect your eyes like those used for solar eclipses. You don't even need a telescope to watch the eclipse, although a good pair of binoculars will help."

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