This Week’s Night Sky: Watch a ‘Lite’ Lunar Eclipse

Look for the moon to darken a smidge as it moves through Earth's shadow, and hunt for a comet passing by a spiral galaxy.

Moon and Greedy Jupiter. As dusk settles in on Monday, March 21, get outside and face east to see the moon and a bright star-like Jupiter rise together into the night sky.

The two super-bright objects will appear quite close—only two degrees apart, a little more than the width of your thumb held at arm’s length.

Try your hand at viewing Jupiter and its four largest moons, which are lined up on either side of the giant planet. Jupiter is so large that it could easily swallow over 1200 Earth-sized worlds.

Earlier this month a new study was released suggesting that in the early part of of the solar system’s history, a baby Jupiter may have traveled through the inner solar system and swallowed up much of the primordial, planet-building material. This could explain why planets close to the sun—Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars—are all on the small side.

Hungry Jupiter may have swept the inner solar system so efficiently that it prevented other large rocky planets from forming closer to the sun than Mercury.

Faint Lunar Eclipse.  With the full moon on the night of Tuesday, March 22 look for a faint eclipse of the moon.

Lunar eclipses occur when the Sun, Earth and moon align such that Earth’s own shadow is cast on the surface of the moon, darkening it. This week’s event is called a penumbral lunar eclipse, and skywatchers will see 78 percent of the moon’s southern parts skirt through the outer, faint shadow cone of Earth.

The effect will be fairly subtle, but keen observers with clear skies should see a slight darkening of the moon’s otherwise highly reflective silvery surface.

The eclipse will start at 2:39 a.m. PDT and will be best visible in western North America at 4:47 a.m. PDT, when it reaches its deepest and darkest point. Folks in the eastern part of the continent will miss out on the second half of the sky show, since the moon will be setting in the west near sunrise. Meanwhile observers in the Pacific Ocean, Australia, New Zealand and Japan can catch the entire eclipse in their evening of March 23, with the darkest phase occurring at 11:47 UT.

Moon and Spica. Late night Thursday, March 24, and into the early morning hours of Friday, look for the nearly full moon and the bright blue star Spica to dominate the entire night as they rise in the east and travel high in the south until dawn.  

Look to the upper right of the pair for the bright orange star Arcturus, and the planet Jupiter perched to their upper right.

Comet Galaxy Pair.  Here’s a wonderful observing challenge and photo opportunity for those with telescopes. On the night of Thursday, March 24, Comet Ikeya-Murakami (P/2010 V1) swings through the bright constellation Leo the Lion, near the pretty spiral galaxy NGC 2903.

The pair will be less than a degree apart, allowing them to both fit into the same field of view through a telescope using high magnification. Both will appear as ghostly grey puff-balls, and the comet may sport a faint tail visible as a streak of light.

NGC 2903 is a spiral galaxy that shines at magnitude 8.9, making it one of the brighter galaxies visible to backyard telescopes. This giant island of stars lies 32 million light-years from Earth and is face-on to us, allowing us to see its dust lanes and the bright knots in its spiral arms.

Clear skies!

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.

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