Mars at opposition, a lunar eclipse and April's Lyrid meteor shower.


What's Up for April? Mars at opposition, a lunar eclipse and April's Lyrid meteor shower.

Hello and welcome. I'm Jane Houston Jones from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

On April 8 Mars reaches opposition, in its nearly 2-year orbit, when it's directly opposite the sun in our sky. This year Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been since 2007. Mars rises in the East in the early evening and is visible all night long. The viewing will be best a little after midnight, when the red planet reaches its highest elevation. Some of the famous dark markings--and possibly the polar cap--will be visible, even in a small telescope. The next Mars oppositions happen in 2016 and 2018, when Mars will be even closer to the Earth and will appear even more impressive in the telescope.

Mars spacecraft launches always happen roughly 2 years apart, a few months before opposition. Because both Earth and Mars are moving in space, we don't aim our spacecraft at where Mars is at launch. Instead, our spacecraft's elliptical orbit takes it to where Mars will be at the end of the 7- or 8-month journey.

InSight, NASA's next Mars mission, launches in 2016 to study the deep interior of Mars and help understand the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system more than 4 billion years ago--including Earth. By using sophisticated geophysical instruments, InSight will measure the planet's 'vital signs'--its 'pulse,' 'temperature' and 'reflexes.'

The Dawn mission's two targets, the protoplanet Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres, both reach opposition this month, too. Use a telescope to see them in the constellation Virgo, not too far from Mars.

A lunar eclipse will be visible to everyone in North and South America and the Pacific on April 14 and 15. On the East Coast the eclipse begins at 12:53 a.m. and ends at 6:38 a.m. If you just want to catch the total eclipse, set your alarm clock for 3 a.m. on the East Coast and midnight on the West Coast. The total eclipse will last an hour and a half from beginning to end.

Look for the familiar constellation Lyra, rising in the Northeast at 10 p.m. It'll be high overhead by 4 a.m. This month's Lyrid meteor shower peaks on the night of April 22 and the morning of April 23. But you'll spot some Lyrids any night between the 16th and the 25th. The peak rate is expected to be 15 to 20 meteors per hour. The third quarter moon rises an hour past midnight, brightening the sky. But the moon will only obscure the fainter meteors. Luckily, the Lyrids are known to produce bright meteors, many with persistent trains.

If you're under a dark sky, you can't miss the beautiful river of stars near Lyra--a spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy.

You can learn about NASA's Mars exploration missions and all of NASA's missions at:

That's all for this month. I'm Jane Houston Jones.

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