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April skies of the Gulf Coast

Solar eclipse in 2017.
Nicole Gunter
Solar eclipse in 2017.

On April 8 the moon’s umbral shadow crosses the center of the United States for the last time in 21 years!

Many of our local astronomers will head to the path of totality, in Texas or Arkansas, but some of us are staying home and will host a community eclipse watch with the Society of Physics Students at the University of West Florida. We will have telescopes for viewing the 70% partial solar eclipse, safe viewers with details of the 2045 totality for our local area, star charts, and meteorites on display.

The top shot is of totality back on August 21, 2017, in Tennessee by EAAA member Nicole Gunter. It captures the corona nicely but overexposes to bright red prominences on the sun’s limb. Use a variety of exposures to catch the sky during totality, with Venus below and Jupiter above the eclipsed disk. Also, on the ground, perhaps a video of the elusive “shadow bands” that crawl across the land on the eve of totality.

Of course, the partially eclipsed crescent sun (over half gone by maximum coverage around 2:30 locally) is also dramatic, especially if your Hydrogen-alpha telescope captures an erupting prominence on the cusp of the solar and lunar limbs, last October 14.

The next local totality will be on August 12, 2045, when Marianna gets SIX minutes of darkness! Because the moon will be about as close to Earth as it can get, and we are also near aphelion, most distant from the Sun, making it appear smaller, note how much broader the umbra will be in 21 years! Something to live for!

On April 11, the waning crescent passes just north of Jupiter in twilight and reaches first quarter on April 15. The Full Moon, the Worm Moon, will be on April 23, but the last quarter moon will wait until May 1.

Mercury and Venus are too close to the Sun to observe, except during totality when Venus will be 15 degrees west of the Sun, and Mercury just above it. Mars overtakes slower moving, more distant Saturn in the dawn sky on April 11, only the diameter of the moon apart, a striking view with the naked eye and a fine photo opp. Jupiter also overtakes much smaller, more distant Uranus on April 20. Here is the telescope view of the giant, his four moons, and Uranus.

Jupiter vanishes into the Sun’s glare in early May, and Saturn and Mars are both in the dawn, so not a great month for telescopic observations on the planets. But Comet Pons-Brooks will be nice in binoculars, and perhaps visible low in the west with the naked eye, if it has another of the several outbursts it has shown us in the last several months, but this is entirely unpredictable!

Visit skymaps.com for a more extensive calendar, and list of the best objects for the naked eyes, binoculars, and scopes on the back of the map.

Yellow Capella, a giant star with the same temperature and color as our much smaller Sun, dominates the northwestern sky. It is part of the pentagon on stars making up Auriga, the Charioteer (think Ben Hur). Several nice binocular Messier open clusters are found here in the winter Milky Way. East of Auriga, the twins, Castor and Pollux highlight the Gemini. South of Gemini, Orion is the most familiar winter constellation, dominating the southern sky at dusk. The reddish supergiant Betelgeuse marks his eastern shoulder, while the blue-white supergiant Rigel stands opposite on his west knee. Just south of the belt, hanging like a sword downward, is M-42, the Great Nebula of Orion's outstanding binocular and telescopic stellar nursery. The bright diamond of four stars that light it up are the trapezium cluster, one of the finest sights in a telescope. In the east are the hunter’s two faithful companions, Canis major and minor. Procyon is the bright star in the little dog and rises minutes before Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. At eight light years, Sirius is the closest star we can easily see here.

We are delighted that the Merry Edenton-Wooten Endowed Chair through the Pensacola State College Foundation has funded the return of public evening planetarium programs to Pensacola State’s Space and Science Theatre. Tickets are available on Purple Pass.

We return to Pensacola Beach Pavilion for our Casino Beach gazes at sunset on these weekends: April 12-13. May 17-18, June 14-15, (none in July), August 16-17, September 13-14, and wrap them up on October 11-12. At the first quarter moon, these are fine public gazes with free parking, telescope viewing, sky interpretation, star charts, and astrophotography with your smartphones.

We have set new dates for our public gazes at Big Lagoon State Park west of Pensacola for these Saturdays: April 27, June 1, June 29, July 19, August 24, September 21, and October 28. There is a $6 admission charge for the State Park, but we have one of the darkest sites on the Gulf Coast for our deep sky work. Be sure to check in at the gate before it closes at sunset.

For more information on the Escambia Amateur Astronomers and our local star gazes for the public, visit sites.google.com/view/escambiaastronomers and link to our “calendar” page, or join us on Facebook. When clear skies permit at the Airport Approach on Langley for special help for beginners, you can contact me, Dr. Wayne Wooten, at johnwaynewooten@gmail.com. Be sure to check out some of these fun sessions on our Facebook gallery.

Dr. John Wayne Wooten has been teaching science since 1970, with a special concentration on astronomy. He received his Doctor of Education in Astronomy from University of Florida in 1979. He was an educator at Pensacola State College since 1974 and University of West Florida since 1984 before retiring in 2017. He still continues to teach distance learning astronomy for Tennessee colleges.