This Week in Space: Lunar Eclipse, Cassini Fly-By of Saturn, and Meteorites With Protein

Tonight marks a full moon, as well as a lunar eclipse in the northern hemisphere. Want to catch the moon’s turning red as it slips into Earth’s shadow? If you’re in North America or western South America, you’re in luck, and should be able to view the entire celestial light show, weather permitting. If you’re in Europe, start calling your Scandinavian friends and driving north toward Denmark, Norway, or Sweden, as those’ll be the only European locations where you can catch the eclipse.

Timing of the Lunar Eclipse

The partial eclipse begins at 10:33 pm PST tonight (December 20), with the moon entering the darkest part of Earth’s shadow (the umbra) at 11:41 pm. Mid-eclipse, the reddest part of the lunar eclipse, occurs at 12:17 am on December 21, and the moon finally leaves the umbra at 12:53 am. All these times are in PST, so if you’re on the East Coast and want to see this eclipse, you’ll have to be up until at least 2:30 am.

How a Lunar Eclipse Works

How does a lunar eclipse work? First of all, full moon happens when the moon, Earth, and sun are all in a straight line. The moon doesn’t usually get shadowed by Earth when it’s full because the moon isn’t always in the same plane as the Earth and the Sun. However, every few years, the celestial spheres align and the moon travels through our shadow, casting a reddish glow on the moon during what we call a lunar eclipse. NASA has a good diagram that illustrates how this works.

The moon turns red because of scattered light from sunsets here on Earth. If you want to learn more about lunar eclipses, NASA will be hosting a live chat from 9 pm PST until 2 am.

Cassini Flyby at Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

Outside of Earth’s neighborhood, NASA’s spacecraft Cassini will be flying over the north pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus later today. Enceladus is an enigmatic moon of the ringed solar system giant, spewing jets of water vapor from ice volcanoes. NASA will be posting updates to the Cassini mission site around 5 pm PST, so stay tuned for images and results of the flyby.

Amino Acids formed on Asteroids?

If you’re tired of looking for amino acids on Earth–the building blocks of proteins–a group of NASA-funded scientists have found some of these molecule chains on a meteorite. The meteorite came from an asteroid that was formed in a hot collision of two other asteroids, leading the team of scientists to believe that amino acids could form on asteroids and survive 2,000°F infernos when small worlds collide.

Does this mean that some of life’s building blocks could have been brought to Earth by meteorites? Read the rest of NASA’s press release to decide for yourself.

What other astronomical events are you excited about this week? Let us know in the comments!

[Photo: SqueakyMarmot on Flickr; used under Creative Commons]

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Alessondra Springmann’s favorite amino acids all start with “T”: taurine, threonine, and tryptophan. Follow her and GeekTech on Twitter.

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