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Getting ready for the lunar eclipse…

Well, after all the weeks and months of waiting, we’re now just (checks watch) fourteen hours away from the start of the total lunar eclipse. As you read this, around the world amateur astronomers in their tens if not hundreds of thousands are frantically checking the weather forecasts for their area, and drawing up Plan Bs, Cs and even Ds. The weather forecast for large parts of the UK, where I am, is pretty good, but as ever with astronomical events it will come down to making a decision to Stay or Go just before the event, depending on what’s actually happening up there.

I hate this part. I really do.

Anyway, amateur astronomers will already have a plan for the morning – they’ll know exactly what equipment they’re taking, what time the different phases of the eclipse happen, and what else they can do while the eclipse progresses. But if you’re an absolute beginner who is just wanting to see what all the fuss is about, and you’re lucky enough to have a clear sky for the eclipse of the Moon tomorrow morning, the temptation will be to go out, look at the Moon, and then go back inside once you feel like you’ve “done” the eclipse. PLEASE don’t do that! PLEASE don’t *just* look at the Moon! Yes, the eclipse will look very pretty – oooh, big Moon, painted orange-red in the sky, wow – but around, behind and above the eclipsed Moon there will be other things to look at too. So, if you’re planning on making the effort to get up (or even stay up!) and see the eclipse, I hope you’ll take this fantastic opportunity to start to get to know other things in the sky.

At just after two o’clock tomorrow morning the eclipse will begin, as the Moon starts to darken on the top left. As this happens, take a moment to look away from the Moon and pan left a bit, until you see an hourglass-shaped pattern of stars…

02-10This is the constellation “Orion”, and you’ll spot very easily its famous “belt” of three stars across its centre. Having found Orion, imagine the belt as an arrow and follow where it’s pointing, to Orion’s upper right, past a “V” of stars lying on its side, and you’ll come to a small knot of stars…

02-10bThis is the famous Pleiades (“play-uh-deez”) star cluster, aka “The Seven Sisters” because if you have really good eyesight you’ll see its seven brightest stars looking like a mini version of the Big Dipper; if your eyesight isn’t that good it might just look like a fuzzy patch, but binoculars will help you see the stars.

The Earth’s shadow will creep across the Moon’s face quite slowly, eventually covering all of it around quarter past three o’clock in the morning. By half past three the Moon will be deep in Earth’s shadow and glowing a red/orange colour. At this stage it will be tempting to just stare and stare at it, but there will be something else worth seeing. Go back to Orion, and look to *its” left, and you’ll see a bright “star” above the eastern horizon – this is actually the planet Venus!

03-30

If you’re still out observing a couple of hours later, when the eclipse is ending, you’ll see Venus has been joined in the east by two other “stars” – these are also planets, Mars and Jupiter.

05-30

So, there you go. If you’re lucky enough to see the eclipse in the morning, have a fantastic time watching it – but take the chance to see some other things too.