1989 Almanac of Celestial Events

For astronomy buffs, here's a guide to assorted celestial events and astronomical phenomena in 1989.

| January/February 1989

Some extraordinary sights are in store this year for those who turn their eyes to the cosmos. A lengthy total lunar eclipse, dazzling meteor showers and displays of northern lights, and several spectacular conjunctions — or close pairings — of planets and other celestial objects are just a few of the celestial events ahead. And for a bonus, even though we won't be able to actually see it, Voyager 2's final and closest flyby of a planet — Neptune — promises exciting photographic revelations.

Solar and Lunar Eclipses

On the afternoon of March 7, the first of two partial solar eclipses (the only solar eclipses this year) will be visible from most of the western half of the U.S., but only viewers in Alaska and Hawaii will get to see the whole show, during which 83% of the sun's diameter will be hidden. The second partial eclipse of the sun, on August 31, will be even less accessible—it'll be observable only from southern Africa, Madagascar and the Antarctic. It will also be the last truly partial eclipse of the sun for more than three years.

The two total lunar eclipses of 1989 hold more promise, although the first, on February 20, will be visible in the Western Hemisphere only from northwest North America, and only as it begins, just before dawn. The year's potentially spectacular second total lunar eclipse, however, should more than make up for its daylight-obscured predecessor. It'll be visible everywhere in the Western Hemisphere except northwest North America, and will reach totality during full darkness—on the night of August 16. Weather permitting, it'll be the first really proper view that people in the eastern U.S. have had of this kind of event since 1982. The August eclipse will also be, by far, the longest total lunar eclipse visible anywhere in the world since 1982: It'll last 96 minutes, only about 11 minutes short of the maximum possible.

The drama will open with the moon entering Earth's not-very-dark peripheral shadow, the penumbra, at 8:23 P.M. EDT. The penumbral shading probably won't be noticeable until close to 9 P.M. Then, at 9:21 P.M., the real excitement will begin when Earth's dark central shadow, the umbra, first touches the left edge of the moon. The umbra will creep slowly across the lunar surface until, at 10:20 P.M., the moon will be completely covered, initiating the "total" stage.

In a total eclipse, the moon's glow usually is reduced to about 1/10,000th of normal fullmoon brightness, but some sunlight does filter through Earth's atmosphere to reach the moon's surface. So don't expect Earth's satellite to be blacked out entirely. Even at mid-eclipse (at 11:08 P.M.), when the moon will be just below the center of Earth's umbra, the moon will not disappear nor will it even appear gray. The exact shading depends on the types and amount of atmospheric dust present around our planet at the time. Reddish orange is most likely, although some total lunars are indeed black and others bright orange. Each is different, so be sure to see this one. You won't get another look at a total lunar eclipse until 1992!

The eclipse will pass totality at 11:56 P.M. The last edge of the umbra will slide off the moon at 12:56 A.M. EDT, and then the penumbra will slip away at 1:53 A.M.

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