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Unstrange Phenomena

19 December 2010

Rare 500 Year Lunar Eclipse Gets Viewed By 1.5 Billion

Check out this incredible and rare cosmic show.

From Denny:  For the first time in 500 years a total lunar eclipse falls on the same day as the Winter Solstice. This is one astronomical event you won't want to miss in the middle of the night on December 20th and 21st. You will be known for generations in your family as The One who witnessed the rare total lunar eclipse since it only occurs about every 500 years. This particular "celestial shadows" is considered to be the best one viewed from North America until 2014 (assuming we all survive the Mayan calendar of 2012). :) This will also be the only total lunar eclipse viewed for this year of 2010.  And you will get to be one of the 1.5 billion to view it best, up to three billion will witness parts of the eclipse.

When is it? Officially, in our Western Hemisphere it begins exactly on the Winter Solstice day of 21 December at 12:29 AM EST or on 20 December at 9:29 PM PST just as the moon begins to enter Earth's outer shadow, called the penumbral.

Check out this NASA lunar eclipse chart to see who in the world gets the best viewing of the total lunar eclipse, go here  North and Central America get the best seats in the cosmic house.  Parts of Europe, northwestern Africa and parts of Australia will get to view the rare event. Japan and Korea get good seats.  However, southern and eastern Africa and India, you get stuck in the cheap seats with no viewing available.  Guess it's static on your cosmic TV set.

One thing about being a lunar eclipse you don't need to worry about protecting your eyes like for a solar eclipse.  It's expected to last about 72 minutes for viewing experience.

When do lunar eclipses occur?  Well, like a good cosmic referee the Earth gets in between the moon and the sun to stop the fight. What happens is that the moon eventually passes through a point in its orbit where the Earth gets between it and the sun.  Then the moon enters the shadow of the Earth and voila! it's a lunar eclipse.

What is a total lunar eclipse?  That's when the entire moon is completely inside the Earth's shadow.  The Earth's atmosphere bends the sun's rays so that some still reach the moon, making the moon still visible in an eclipse.

Watch for the changes of the moon in stages.   Look to the upper left edge of the moon at 1:33 AM EST (10:33 PM PST).  This is the beginning of the partial phase of the eclipse.  What is happening is that the Earth's dark shadow, called the umbra, will start to slowly creep over the face of the full moon.

Stage two:  The eclipse will reach its totality by 2:41 AM EST (11:41 PM PST).  There should  be a coppery glow to the moon, sometimes called a "blood moon."  What produces that is the sunlight gets bent by our atmosphere and travels around the Earth's curvature.  What's really cool when you pull out the binoculars or small telescope to view it better is that the moon will give this illusion of seeming to glow from within from its own light.  Guess that's where the song writers get that "moon magic" romantic notion.

If you are lucky enough to have clear skies, then by 3:18 AM EST (12:18 AM PST) the sun, the Earth and the moon will be forming an almost straight conga dance line.  This is when the light of the moon will appear its dimmest.

The total lunar eclipse ends at 3:53 AM EST (12:53 AM PST).  The moon emerges completely out from the umbra, the Earth's dark shadow, by 5:01 AM EST (2:01 AM PST).  By about 15 to 20 minutes later, the fainter penumbral shadow, the Earth's outer shadow, will finally roll off the moon's upper right edge.  The full moon returns to its normal party animal self in the cosmos.

How often do total lunar eclipses occur?  Answer: about four to five times per decade in any one location.  Our last total lunar eclipse was on 20 February 2008.  There are two total lunar eclipses expected to occur in 2011.  In the Eastern Hemisphere, on June 15th, there will be the first total lunar eclipse to kick off the year. In the western half of North America on December 10th there will be the second of the year just before the moon sets.  There won't be any total lunar eclipse treats for North America until 14 April 2014.

That strange blood red color

Astronomers are wondering how dark or how coppery red the moon will appear in this total lunar eclipse this year.  They are pondering the possibility of how the Earth's atmosphere might affect the color of the moon because of Mount Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcano in Iceland last spring and the Mount Merapi volcano in Indonesia in October.  It could be possible that some ash clouds and dust are riding high in the Earth's atmosphere.  That might cause the moon to appear darker, maybe even black and invisible during the totality.

Lunar eclipse color unpredictable this year 

Right now color possibilities are unpredictable this year.  The color could be the usual coppery-hue, the blood red or orange, chocolate brown or even gray.  It will depend upon how much light the Earth's atmosphere refracts as its shadow creeps across the moon.  So, keep looking up, keep a journal of what you see to tell the grand kids, and, enjoy!

*** Photo from NASA

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