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Skywatchers delight: Flower Moon, lunar eclipse, and a meteor shower this weekend

Skywatchers around the globe are in for a celestial double feature this weekend. On Friday, May 5th, a rare penumbral lunar eclipse will occur as the Earth casts its outer shadow, known as the penumbra, on the full “Flower Moon.” 

In addition, the Eta Aquarid meteor shower is set to peak on May 6th, providing stargazers with another reason to look up.

The penumbral lunar eclipse will be visible to billions of people across Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and even Antarctica. This celestial event occurs when the Earth comes between the Sun and the Moon, blocking some of the sunlight from reaching the lunar surface. As a result, the Earth’s penumbra is cast on the Moon, causing a subtle shift in its lighting.

Professor Don Pollacco of the University of Warwick explained the process to MailOnline: “The shadow of a planet produces an umbral and penumbral shadow depending on the location of the planet and the Sun. The darkest eclipses occur when the moon moves through the Earth’s umbral shadow. A penumbral eclipse occurs as the moon moving through the shadow of the Earth.”

At this time of year, the full moon is commonly known as the “Flower Moon,” “Milk Moon,” or “Corn Planting Moon,” inspired by the blooming plants typically observed in early May. Unfortunately, viewers in the US and the UK are unlikely to see the effects of this eclipse, but they should be able to see unique colors of the ‘Flower Moon.’

The penumbral lunar eclipse is expected to begin at 11:15 AM Eastern time on May 5th and last for just over four hours, ending at 3:31 pm. It will be the deepest penumbral eclipse until September 2042, but weather conditions and patience will be required to observe this subtle event. 

Professor Pollacco also noted that spotting the Moon’s darkening can be quite difficult due to the Sun’s continued illumination.

Total lunar eclipses differ from penumbral ones in that the Sun does not illuminate the Moon during the former. Instead, sunlight passes through Earth’s atmosphere and reaches the lunar surface, resulting in a stunning display. 

“During these eclipses, the Sun does not illuminate the Moon, but instead light from the Sun goes through the Earth’s atmosphere and reaches the Lunar surface,” Professor Don Pollacco told the Daily Mail. “It is then reflected back to us. So instead of the Moon disappearing, it gets faint and often turns dark red – an impressive sight.”

In addition to the penumbral lunar eclipse, the Eta Aquarid meteor shower will peak between midnight and dawn on May 6th. According to Royal Museums Greenwich, this event favors the Southern Hemisphere. 

The Eta Aquarids are created from debris left behind by Halley’s Comet and occur annually from mid-April to late May.

As Earth passes through various comet orbits each year, we see an increase in meteor activity depending on the density of dust previously ejected from the comet. 

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower, named for its radiant in the constellation of Aquarius, occurs when Earth crosses through the orbit of Halley’s Comet. 

While this meteor shower is best observed from the Southern Hemisphere, viewers in the UK might still catch a glimpse of about 10 meteors per hour in clear, dark conditions.

This weekend’s celestial events promise a stunning display for stargazers across the globe, with both the rare penumbral lunar eclipse and the Eta Aquarid meteor shower taking center stage.

More about penumbral lunar eclipses

Penumbral lunar eclipses are a fascinating celestial phenomenon that occur when the Moon passes through the outer, fainter part of Earth’s shadow, known as the penumbra. Unlike total or partial lunar eclipses, where the Moon passes through the darker, inner part of Earth’s shadow called the umbra, penumbral eclipses are subtle and often difficult to observe. 

During a penumbral eclipse, the Moon’s brightness is only slightly dimmed, and many casual observers may not even notice the change in its appearance.

There are three types of lunar eclipses: total, partial, and penumbral. A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon moves entirely into Earth’s umbra, causing it to turn a deep red or copper color as sunlight is refracted through Earth’s atmosphere.

A partial lunar eclipse happens when only a portion of the Moon passes through the umbra, resulting in a visible darkening of part of its surface.

Penumbral lunar eclipses, on the other hand, occur more frequently than total or partial eclipses. They happen when the Moon passes through Earth’s penumbral shadow, which is a region of partial shadow that surrounds the umbra. 

During a penumbral eclipse, Earth, the Sun, and the Moon are not perfectly aligned, causing only a portion of the sunlight to be blocked from reaching the lunar surface. This results in a gentle dimming of the Moon’s brightness, which can be difficult to perceive without specialized equipment or prior knowledge of the event.

Though penumbral lunar eclipses are less dramatic than their total or partial counterparts, they still offer a unique opportunity for skywatchers to observe the intricate dance of celestial bodies. 

To view a penumbral lunar eclipse, you’ll need a clear night with minimal light pollution, as well as patience and a keen eye to discern the subtle changes in the Moon’s appearance. 

It’s also helpful to consult an astronomical calendar or app to determine the exact timing of the eclipse in your location, as the event may last for several hours.

More about the “Flower Moon”

The “Flower Moon” is a name given to the full moon that occurs in May, a time when flowers and plants are in full bloom across many parts of the world. 

The name is rooted in the tradition of Native American, Colonial American, and other cultures that used the lunar cycle to keep track of the seasons and assign names to each full moon throughout the year. These names often reflected the natural events, environmental changes, or cultural activities associated with that particular time of year.

In May, the Flower Moon signifies the abundance of blooming flowers that typically appear in this month, marking the transition from spring to summer in the Northern Hemisphere. The full moon’s light is also believed to contribute to the growth of plants and flowers during this period.

The Flower Moon has other names as well, such as the “Milk Moon” and the “Corn Planting Moon.” The “Milk Moon” refers to the time when cows were historically known to produce more milk, which could be attributed to the fresh spring grass they consumed. 

The “Corn Planting Moon” represents the period when Native American tribes and early settlers traditionally began planting corn, an essential crop for their sustenance and livelihoods.

It is important to note that different cultures around the world have their own names and interpretations for each full moon, reflecting their unique environments and traditions. 

The “Flower Moon,” like other full moons, is not only a celestial event but also a cultural symbol that connects people to the changing seasons and the natural world around them.

More about the Eta Aquarids meteor shower

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower is an annual celestial event that occurs from mid-April to late May, with its peak usually happening around May 5th or 6th. 

The meteor shower is named after the constellation Aquarius, as the meteors appear to originate from a point near the star Eta Aquarii in this constellation. The radiant, or point from which the meteors seem to emanate, is situated in the southern part of the constellation Aquarius.

The Eta Aquarids are the result of debris left behind by the famous Halley’s Comet, which orbits the Sun approximately every 76 years. As Earth passes through the stream of dust and debris from the comet’s orbit, these particles collide with our planet’s atmosphere at high speeds, causing them to burn up and create bright streaks in the sky known as meteors.

The Eta Aquarids are known for their speed, as the meteors can travel at velocities of up to 66 kilometers (41 miles) per second. This high speed can result in bright, long-lasting streaks and the occasional fireball. 

The meteor shower is more visible and active in the Southern Hemisphere, where the radiant is higher in the sky. Observers in this region can expect to see around 20 to 40 meteors per hour during the peak, whereas those in the Northern Hemisphere may see around 10 to 30 meteors per hour, depending on their location and viewing conditions.

To best view the Eta Aquarids meteor shower, find a dark location away from city lights and allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness for about 20 to 30 minutes. The best time to observe the meteors is typically in the hours just before dawn, as the radiant in Aquarius rises higher in the sky.

While focusing on the radiant point is not necessary, it may help to orient yourself towards the southeast if you are in the Northern Hemisphere or towards the northeast if you are in the Southern Hemisphere. Finally, relax, be patient, and enjoy the celestial show as meteors streak across the sky.


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