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Spring is coming, clocks getting set forward

On the heels of a relatively warm fall we underwent winter's full force replete with staccato blasts of snow and ice, including January's walloping 30-inch blizzard. How fleeting this winter will be remains to be seen although last month the meteorological prognosticator Punxsutawney Phil declared a forthcoming early spring. Fooled into making an early appearance around the holidays, the daffodils' premature green shoots have struggled under blankets of snow.

A number of minor events relating to astronomy will occur this month starting with a spectacular total solar eclipse on Tuesday, March 8. The eclipse path traced by the shadow of the moving moon cast by the sun on the Earth's surface starts near Indonesia, crosses a large swath of the Pacific Ocean and ends north of the Hawaiian islands. Unfortunately, we will see none of the solar eclipse because it will be nighttime in Maryland.

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The orbital motions of the moon and planets are cyclical and repeat over time. It's not surprising therefore to lean that occurrences of solar and lunar eclipses occur in cycles as well. The period of time for the Earth, sun and moon to realign is referred to as a Saros, or 18 years 11 1/3 days. Eclipses related in this way are grouped and numbered. March's solar eclipse is a member of Saros 130, a series of total solar eclipses starting in the year 1475 with the last one expected in 2232, according to NASA's eclipse web site.

The previous total solar eclipse in Saros 130 was on Feb. 26, 1998. I viewed it from a cruise ship near Curaçao, an island in the Netherlands Antilles some 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela. It was a great place for a winter escape in February.

Clocks get set ahead one hour on Sunday, March 13, beginning the so-called period of Daylight Saving Time or simply "daylight" time. An obvious misnomer as daylight cannot be saved or lengthened unless one could somehow slow the Earth's rotation. Daylight time is roundly opposed by many astronomers who must wait an additional hour for darkness, thereby losing an hour of sleep on any given clear night. Astronomer Guy Ottewell calls daylight time "Daylight Shifting Time." He criticizes the system for having "no practical benefit" because it "adds weary complication to a thousand statements."

I recently learned that in this country the theory of daylight time may have originated with Benjamin Franklin. Why would such a wise, intellectual and learned patriot want to tamper with what is arguably an "empty suit" policy of civil time regulation? Franklin apparently wrote a letter to a journal suggesting that adjusting the time would force people from their beds earlier in the day so they could make full use of the available daylight hours resulting in a savings on candles to boot. It was a relief reading that the recommended resetting of clocks was his idea of a joke. Not so any longer; the joke has come to pass although candles are out.

It used to be that the annual adaptation of the Daylight Saving Time charade occurred in the spring season — i.e. "spring forward." However since 2007 the change has come on the second Sunday of March, during winter. The first day of spring, astronomically known as the Spring Equinox, comes one week later on March 20 at 12:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time — that's March 19, 11:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (that's one statement out of thousands of other weary complications.)

There is a penumbral lunar eclipse on the morning of Wednesday, March 23. The best lunar eclipses are total where the moon is completely covered out by the Earth's penumbral shadow. Second place are partial lunar eclipses where the moon appears to have a dark bite out of it. Penumbral eclipses occur when the moon passes through the Earth's much lighter penumbral shadow. To make matters worse, the moon will barely skirt through the outer portion of the penumbra. Worst of all, it starts prior to twilight and continues after moonset.

But the time may be an advantage for persons who will be up getting ready for work anyway. The eclipse starts when the moon touches the penumbral shadow at 5:37 a.m. EDT. The moon sets shortly after 7 a.m. — about a half hour before maximum eclipse. If you're into conserving candles and are up and out during that time you might look up to see if you can notice any dimming toward the moon's upper left edge.

The next public planetarium program starts at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 12 in the Bear Branch Nature Center north of Westminster. Weather permitting, the B.F. Roelke Memorial Observatory will also be open for observing. The planetarium show costs $5 and seats may be reserved by calling 410-386-2103.

Curtis Roelle is a member of the Astronomical Society. His website is www.starpoints.org, and he can be reached at starpoints@gmail.com.

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