Today’s total eclipse of a supermoon occurred in the WSW, under partly cloudy skies, as dawn grew on the opposite side of the sky. Despite less than optimal conditions, totality was visible until the Moon disappeared in the cloud deck amassing near the horizon.
Here are a few shots of the supermoon rising on Tuesday evening (May 25) and settng in total eclipse this morning (May 26).
Spring migration is in full swing in New Mexico. Thousands upon thousands of birds migrate through our state each spring and fall. In our area, migrating birds follow the Central Flyway, using the Rio Grande and the Rocky Mountains to guide their north and south travels. Many birds migrate at night, some species using the stars to navigate by.
A Wilson’s Warbler visited our yard last fall as it migrated from its breeding grounds in the Pacific Northwest and Canada to its winter grounds in southern Mexico and Central America.
Unfortunately, lights distract and disorient night-flying birds. There are too many stories of migrating flocks slamming into well-lit buildings, many of the birds succumbing to their injuries. We can help migrating birds safely pass through our area by reducing our own lighting.
The lights of Santa Fe and nearby communities reflect off low clouds, lighting up the sky for miles around.
While change is difficult, it’s not impossible. Below is a link to a story published on cnn.com this week, describing efforts by people in downtown Philadelphia to reduce the danger to migrating birds in their area. It’s worth a moment to read.
A photo in today’s Philadelphia Enquirer shows a few of the estimated 1,500 birds that flew into a well-lit skyscraper.
We don’t have any tall buildings in the Santa Fe area (there are three five-story hotels and two four-story hotels), but we have plenty of disorienting lights to confuse migrators.
Our beautiful, unshielded holiday lights go on right after Thanksgiving, while fall migration is still in progress. Turning off lights earlier in the evening can help night migrators safely pass through our area.
While our buildings are low, our town is sandwiched between the Rio Grande to the west and the base of the Rocky Mountains immediately east, so our lights can still disorient migrating birds who can crash into natural obstacles.
The lights of the Santa Fe area create a light dome (left of center) that can disorient birds migrating at night. The Rio Grande is in the distance at the far left; the Rocky Mountains can be seen on the right.
Keeping unnecessary lights off or turning them off early can help our feathered friends safely migrate. By working together, we can reduce our cumulative light footprint and provide a measure of safety to the thousands of migrating birds that pass overhead and visit our yards.
If you’re hoping for a discussion of UFOs, you can stop here…
Not uncommonly, two celestial objects appear close to one another in the sky. These events involve the Sun, Moon, and/or the planets (and, once in a while, comets), since all of these objects appear to move in the sky against the background of the distant stars, as seen from Earth.
With the exception of comets, all objects that move in our sky, relative to the background stars, closely follow an invisible line called the plane of the ecliptic (the path that the Sun appears to travel as the Earth orbits it). When two objects have the same right ascension (essentially, when they are due north or south of one another), they are said to be in ‘conjunction.’
Technically, two objects can be in conjunction and still not appear to be as close as they can get to one another. The term for when two objects are closest to one another is an ‘appulse.’ The difference between when two objects are in conjunction and when they are an appulse is slight. Conjunction is the term most commonly used to describe two objects appearing close together in the sky, so I’ll use that term here.
Most conjunctions we observe in the night sky involve the Moon since the Moon makes an entire circuit of the ecliptic in only about 28 days. The Moon’s high apparent speed against the background stars causes the Moon to frequently approach and pass other celestial objects (sometimes the Moon actually passes in front of another object, ‘occulting’ it). Less commonly, one planet will be in conjunction with another planet or nearby star.
In the half year, we’ve been treated to a number of close conjunctions. The highly anticipated conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn occurred in December, when the two largest planets appeared so close to one another that they could be captured in the same field of view in a telescope or, as in the photo below, the zoom lens of a camera.
Jupiter (below) made its closest approach to Saturn on December 21, 2020. This photo was taken with a camera and telephoto lens. In my telescope, not only could I see the two planets in the same field of view, but I could see the four Galilean Moons of Jupiter and the two brightest moons of Saturn. That’s eight solar system objects in one field of view!
This is what Jupiter’s close encounter with Saturn looked like with the unaided eye. Jupiter is below and to the left of the more distant, dimmer Saturn, as they set together between the Sandia Mountains and Grand Central Mountain in the Cerrillos Hills.
Below are several examples of other close encounters that have recently occurred in our skies.
An almost full moon is in conjunction with the planet Mars (top right) in October 2020. Seeing conditions were particularly excellent that night.
As Jupiter pulled away from Saturn (after their December conjunction), Mercury joined the action, to the left of Grand Central Mountain (partially obscured by the house) and Cerro de la Cosena.
In March, the red planet Mars (lower left), had a close encounter with the blue-white Pleiades star cluster in Taurus.
This past Wednesday (May 12), the Moon and Venus made a nice pair in the west, above Tetilla Peak (left foreground) and the Jemez Mountains. The waxing crescent moon was only 1.5% illuminated.
The following evening (Thursday, May 13), the Moon passed Mercury at a somewhat greater distance than the Moon’s recent close encounter with Venus.
Since celestial objects visible to the unaided eye that appear to move against the background of the distant stars can be counted on two hands, conjunctions and appulses are not every night occurrences.
However, if you have binoculars or a telescope, the opportunities to observe close encounters increase substantially since there are many asteroids orbiting the Sun that can be in conjunction with another object. And, if you include man-made satellites in Earth orbit, conjunctions of one kind or another are virtually nightly events.
FYI, tonight (Saturday, May 15), the Moon will pass close to the planet Mars in the constellation Gemini. There’s always something happening above us in our silent night skies.
Mars is twice the size of the Moon, but appears as a mere dot near the left edge of the photo since it’s currently about 200 million miles farther from Earth than the Moon.
Please avoid unnecessary lighting, so we can all enjoy the show.
In April, I posted the blog, ‘Two Novae,’ describing novae occurring in the constellations Cassiopeia and Sagittarius. The nova in Cassiopeia, V1405 Cas, continues to brighten.
When the nova V14405 Cas was discovered on March 18th, it was a faint magnitude 9.6. When I photographed the nova on April 8th, it was visible in binoculars and telescopes at magnitude 7.6.
The nova’s brightness increased slightly during April, but on May 6-7, it spiked by almost two magnitudes. Now, the nova’s magnitude is 5.4, currently visible to the naked eye in clear, dark skies, if you know exactly where to look. Before dawn today, Cassiopeia was in the northeast, rising out of the Santa Fe light dome, as seen from my location. I couldn’t find V1405 Cas with the unaided eye, but it’s easily seen in the photos I took.
Here are two comparison photos, showing how the nova has brightened between the first photo, taken April 8th (top photo), and today’s photo (May 13th). The change in brightness relative to the background stars is obvious.
Changes in a nova’s brightness are unpredictable and, while models suggest V1405 Cas is at about its brightest, we’ll need to continue to observe this nova to confirm that. It’s worth noting that novae themselves are uncommon — novae bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye are rarer still.
To learn more about novae, please see the blog, ‘Two Novae,’ posted on April 9th.
For countless centuries, people of different cultures gazed at the glowing band of stars that bridged the sky and wondered what to make of it. While their stories are unique, there are many commonalities. Here are a few examples of how ancient cultures around the world explained the existence of the Milky Way:
Greece: Let’s begin with the ancient Greeks’ creation myth since it’s said to have led to the name, ‘the Milky Way,’ which has been in use for more than 2,500 years:
Zeus, the sky god and king of the gods on Mount Olympus, had a son, Heracles, with a mortal woman. To give Heracles godlike qualities, Zeus had the baby suckle at the breast of his sleeping goddess wife, Hera. Hera awoke, found an unknown baby sucking her breast, and pushed it away. Milk squirted from her celestial tit, creating the river of stars the Greeks called ‘galaktikos kyklos’ or ‘milky circle.’ A later Latin translation of the Greek was ‘via lactea’ or ‘milky way.’ Note that ‘galaktikos’ is the root of the much later term, ‘galaxy.’
China: According to ‘The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl,’ a folktale more than 2,500 years old, Zhi Nu, seventh daughter of the Jade Emperor, and Niu Lang, overseer of the celestial cattle, fell in love. When the Jade Emperor found out, he made Zhi Nu weave clouds every day and banished Niu Lang to Earth, as a cowherd.
One day, Zhi Nu descended to Earth and bathed in a river. Niu Lang happened upon her and their love rekindled. The two lovers married and had children.
Eventually, the Jade Emperor learned of his daughter’s marriage and demanded that her mother, the goddess Queen Mother of the West, return Zhi Nu to heaven. Niu Lang was distraught that he’d been separated from Zhi Nu for a second time.
Niu Lang’s ox (this ox was once the God of Cattle, but that’s another story) built a special vehicle, so that Niu Lang and his children could travel to heaven to find Zhi Nu. Zhi Nu’s celestial mother caught wind of Niu Lang’s plan to find his wife and created the Silver River — a river of stars that split the heavens, permanently separating the lovers. As a result of the couple’s exile from one another, Zhi Nu became the star, Vega; Niu Lang became Altair.
Zhi Nu (Vega) and Niu Lang (Altair) gaze upon one another from opposing banks of the Silver River.
A flock of magpies was moved by the purity of spouses’ love and they built a bridge of birds over the Silver River where the two lovers could meet. The Emperor of Heaven was likewise moved by the couple’s love and he allowed them to reunite on the magpie bridge every year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Today, the Qi Xi Festival celebrates the love of Zhi Nu and Niu Lang.
The ‘Silver River’ is thought to be the sky-equivalent of the Han River, a 900-mile long tributary of the Yangtze.
Egypt: Egyptian mythology from several thousand years ago suggested that the luminous stream of stars is milk, spilled from the udders of a celestial cow (there are those milk and cow references, again). Not surprisingly, the ancient Egyptians saw the spilled milk bridging the heavens as the sky-equivalent of the Nile River.
There’s evidence that the Egyptian and Greek people interacted more than 3,000 years ago, so it’s possible that one culture influenced the other in terms of our galaxy’s ‘milky’ beginnings.
Botswana: The !Kung* Bushmen of the Kalahari desert observed the ghostly band of stars overhead and called it the ‘Backbone of the Night,’ possibly suggesting that the sky was a living being.
Australia: The Australian aboriginal tribes had numerous stories about the Milky Way. Many saw it as a river in the sky world.
The Kaurna people of southern Australia called the glowing band of light, ‘Wodliparri.’ They believed that Wodliparri was a sky-river and that fires burned along its banks. They noted that there were dark lanes traversing Wodliparri. They called these dark areas, ‘Yurakauwe’ — waters where monsters reside. Another aboriginal tribe believed that a giant crocodile lived in the river.
One creation story from Queensland involved Priepriggie, a great hunter, who happened upon a group of flying foxes, asleep in a tree. When Priepriggie killed the largest animal, the remaining flying foxes grabbed the hunter and hauled him into the sky.
All day, the Priepriggie’s tribe looked and looked, but couldn’t find any trace of him. At night, they heard Priepriggie faintly singing. The stars began to twinkle and they shifted position until they’d arranged themselves into a ribbon of luminous light that spanned the heavens. Thus, was the band of light we call the Milky Way created.
India: Followers of the Hindu religion referred to the ribbon of light in the heavens as ‘Akasaganga’ or ‘Ganges of the Sky,’ another sky-equivalent of a life-giving river on Earth.
Finland: ‘Lunnunrata’ (‘Pathway of Birds’) is what the early Finnish people called the Milky Way. They believed that birds followed Lunnunrata to their winter home, ‘Lintukoto.’ They were ultimately proven correct since some migrating birds do use the Milky Way as a navigational aid.
Norway: Norsemen saw the Milky Way as the path of deceased warriors being led by Valkyries to the hall of the dead, Valhalla, which is ruled by the Norse god, Odin.
Mesoamerica: The Mayan people believed the Milky Way to be the road spirits take to reach the underworld.
The Mayans believed that the moment of creation occurred when the Milky Way stood on end.
Navajo: In the Navajo creation story, Black God (the God of Fire and a practitioner of witchcraft) possessed a pouch of crystals. He carefully placed the crystals in the sky. Since the crystals didn’t shine by light of their own, Black God placed a fire-star in each constellation to make them glow.
Coyote watched Black God precisely set each crystal in the sky. Becoming impatient with Black God’s painstaking effort, Coyote grabbed the pouch and shook the remaining crystals into the heavens, creating ‘Yikaisdaha’ or ‘That Which Awaits The Dawn.’
The Navajo people view Yikaisdaha as a path that spirits follow when traveling between the Earth and the afterlife, each star in the path being a spirit’s footprint.
The Navajo people noted that, in January, Yikaisdaha is parallel to the eastern horizon, just before dawn.
Shoshone: The Shoshones of Wyoming tell a story of a grizzly bear who climbed a high mountain in order to go hunting in the sky. As the bear climbed higher, snow and ice clung to its fur. As the bear departed the mountain top and crossed the sky, the snow and ice fell off its fur, leaving a trail of luminosity behind.
Cherokee. The Cherokee tribe of southeastern United States believed the Milky Way was the road to the Land of Souls. The path was guarded by a large and a small dog, the stars Sirius and Mirzam. Travelers along the path to the Land of Souls must feed the two dogs or be trapped forever.
The Cherokee path to the Land of Souls and the two dogs that guard it.
These are just a few of the stories about the Milky Way from ancient cultures around the world. The stories were handed down from generation to generation, not just as entertainment around the fires, but as a means of making sense of the night sky above.
So, the next time you gaze at the Milky Way, don’t just look at the stars — consider the celestial rivers, the spirit paths, the spilled milk, and other stories our ancestors created to explain the ghostly luminescence they pondered during the long, dark nights of millennia past.
May begins with a strong meteor shower and ends with a close conjunction of Mercury and Venus. Sandwiched between these two events is a total eclipse of a supermoon.
Totally eclipsed Moon, October 8, 2014.
This month, Hydra, the water serpent, is well-positioned for viewing. While the largest of the 88 constellations, Hydra’s relatively unknown, its brightest star being only magnitude 2.0. See if you can identify it on a moonless evening, stretching over 100 degrees of sky, its head below Cancer, its body beneath Sextans, Crater, and Corvus, and its tail ending at the Libra border.
Mercury is visible in the evening twilight for much of the month. It reaches eastern elongation on May 17, meaning that it appears at its farthest point east of the Sun. On this evening, Mercury sets at the end of astronomical twilight. During the last week of May, the innermost planet makes a close pairing with Venus.
Venus begins the month low in the WNW just after the Sun sets. By the end of May, it catches up with and passes Mercury near the Taurus – Gemini border.
Mars continues to fade as it recedes from Earth. An evening object all month, Mars sets around 11:15pm MDT at month’s end, near the Gemini – Cancer border.
Saturn is still a morning object in May. It slowly brightens during the month as its distance to Earth decreases. By May 31st, Saturn rises shortly after midnight in the constellation Capricornus.
Jupiter follows Saturn into the sky each morning, also brightening as Earth approaches it. Now located in Aquarius, Jupiter’s the brightest object in the morning sky, excluding the Moon.
Jupiter (left, above center) and Saturn (2 o’clock from Jupiter) rising in the predawn sky in April.
On the morning of May 26th, a full supermoon will set in the WSW, just after being totally eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow. From the Santa Fe area, totality begins at 5:11am MDT, one hour and four minutes after dawn commences. Totality ends 25 minutes before sunrise. These aren’t optimal conditions for viewing the eclipse, but at least we’ll be able to see it as dawn grows in the east.
A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth is directly between the Sun and the Moon, as the Moon orbits the Earth. The first phase of a lunar eclipse is the penumbral phase, in which the Moon approaches the Earth’s shadow. In this phase, sunlight passes through the Earth’s atmosphere before reaching the Moon, causing a very slight dimming at the Moon’s leading (left) edge. The umbral phase of a lunar eclipse begins when the Moon enters the Earth’s shadow. Total eclipse occurs when the Moon is completely within the Earth’s shadow.
Here are details of the May 26, 2021 total eclipse of the moon, specific to the Santa Fe area:
Penumbral eclipse begins: 2:47am MDT
Umbral eclipse begins: 3:45am MDT
Astronomical dawn begins: 4:07am MDT
Totality begins: 5:11am MDT
Maximum eclipse: 5:18am MDT
Totality ends: 5:26am MDT
Sunrise: 5:51am MDT
Moonset: 5:58am MDT
Note: The umbral and penumbral eclipse phases end after the Moon has set at our location.
The duration of totality is quite short in this eclipse because the Moon is passing just below the top of Earth’s round shadow.
During totality, the Moon is still visible as a reddish disk, despite being covered by the Earth’s shadow. This is because sunlight passing through the Earth’s atmosphere is filtered and refracted, some of which reaches the Moon’s surface. The shade of red in a totally eclipsed moon depends on conditions in the Earth’s atmosphere (e.g., temperature, water content, cloud cover, dust), making each eclipse somewhat unique.
On January 31, 2018, a totally eclipsed Moon was setting above the Jemez Mountains as dawn brightened the sky.
May Night Sky Events:
May 6-7: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks on the night of May 6th and before dawn on the 7th. This shower can produce 60 meteors per hour during its peak. The waning crescent moon won’t interfere with viewing.
May 11: New moon.
May 17: Mercury is at its farthest point east of the Sun, making it easy to see in the WNW, in late twilight, between the horns of Taurus.
May 26: A full supermoon eclipse occurs before sunrise. Totality begins at 5:11am MDT, well after dawn has begun. The moon, near the head of Scorpius (the scorpion), will be low in the WSW. It will appear somewhat similar to the total eclipse of January 31, 2018, which also occurred during dawn.
May 25-31: For several evenings around May 27th, Venus and Mercury will be close to one another in the WNW twilight, not far from the Crab Nebula (magnitude 8.4) in Taurus. Watch these fast-moving planets as they change position from night to night.