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A Lunar Triple Play

by Perry Pezzolanella

Nothing beats a lunar eclipse with the Moon having a coppery glow among a darkened, starlit sky giving it a stunning 3-D effect. Best of all, lunar eclipses are safe to look at and can be enjoyed with nothing more than eyes. A total lunar eclipse can last nearly two hours such as the one on July 6, 1982. They can be seen on any part of the Earth that is experiencing night and are more frequent and easier to see than a total solar eclipse where one may have to travel thousands of miles to stand in a narrow path of totality lasting only a few minutes. Each lunar eclipse is unique because each one has a different hue. Sometimes the Moon can appear so black that it nearly disappears such as the December 9, 1992 eclipse. At other times the Moon can have a vibrant reddish-orange hue such as the February 20, 2008 eclipse. A lunar eclipse can have unexpected hues such as the “Chocolate Eclipse” of November 29, 1993 when the Moon had interesting shades of brown and tan. Bluish tints are another unexpected color such as the lunar eclipse of November 8, 2003.

The color is due to sunlight being refracted (bent) by the Earth’s atmosphere around its edges as seen from the Moon, creating a coppery hue. Someone on the Moon during a total lunar eclipse would actually be experiencing all of the sunrises and sunsets on Earth as it would look totally dark surrounded by a bright coppery ring of light. If the Earth’s atmosphere is unusually cloudy or full of volcanic dust, less sunlight is able to pass through and the Moon will appear darker. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 ejected tons of dust into the atmosphere, which caused the dark 1992 and 1993 lunar eclipses. If the atmosphere is rather clear, the lunar eclipses appear brighter, which has been the case this past decade. The total lunar eclipse of December 21, 2010 was totally clouded out, but the last successful one on February 20, 2008 was a beautiful one. If you missed that one, it probably has been a long wait but finally there will be a chance next year to witness one. Actually there will be three chances with hopes that at least one will occur during good weather.

The first of the trio occurs during the wee hours of April 15, 2014 so get to bed early for this one. Totality will last for 1 hour and 19 minutes from 3:06 A.M. until 4:25 A.M. The Moon will pass through the southern half of Earth’s dark shadow, the umbra. Since it will not pass too deeply into the umbra or cross the center of it, the southern part of the Moon should appear bright. Partial eclipse begins at 1:58 A.M. and ends at 5:33 A.M. If you are interested in seeing the dusky penumbral phase before the partial phase begins, then be ready at 12:52 A.M. but any hint of shading might not be obvious until a half hour later.

There is not much to worry about if that one is clouded out since the next one on October 8, 2014 is a little more convenient, that is, if you are normally an early riser or are up before the crack of dawn on work days. Totality lasts exactly one hour from 6:24 A.M. to 7:24 A.M. but twilight and sunrise will be a factor; the Moon will be setting so this one could be a challenge. The consolation is that the partially or totally eclipsed Moon will be low enough for some great photography with scenery and landmarks. The partial phase begins at 5:14 A.M. and the penumbral phase starts at 4:13 A.M. The Moon will pass through the northern part of the umbra but not too deeply, so this eclipse could be rather bright, and may be enhanced by the twilight whereas it might not be visible if it was too dark.

The next total lunar eclipse occurs on September 27, 2015, but before that there is another that we will barely miss and is yet another one of those sunrise eclipses. On April 4, 2015 the Moon will become partially eclipsed starting at 6:15 A.M. but totality will not occur until 7:56 A.M. with the Sun already up and the Moon already set. Totality would have only lasted nine minutes anyway, a very rare short one that will probably be well publicized due to that unusual fact. The good news is the lunar eclipse later that year will at long last occur during the convenient evening hours. Totality will last 1 hour and 13 minutes from 10:11 P.M. to 11:24 P.M. with the partial phase starting at 9:07 P.M. and ending at 12:28 A.M. The Moon passes through the southern part of the umbra, so this could potentially be another fairly bright total eclipse. This eclipse could be the best of the lunar triple play and will probably be the most photographed since the entire eastern U.S. is favored to see the entire event from when the Moon first touches the Earth’s penumbra at 8:10 P.M. until it leaves it at 1:24 A.M.

Beyond 2015 there will once again be another drought of lunar eclipses with only a few penumbral or slight partial events until a nice midnight total eclipse on January 20-21, 2019, which will last for 1 hour and 2 minutes from 11:41 P.M. until 12:43 A.M. It is not until 2022 that we finally get at least a pair of total lunar eclipses on May 15-16 and November 8, both coincidentally lasting 1 hour and 26 minutes. So it is important to try and take advantage of any total lunar eclipse that comes our way as they are not too common, but luckily usually occur in clusters to improve the odds of having a chance of seeing at least one. There is always one other way to maximize seeing as many total lunar eclipses as possible and that is to travel, especially if the eclipse is during the winter when clouds could ruin the show. It is also a great excuse to get away to a warmer climate, or better yet, plan a vacation around one to another part of the U.S. or overseas.

If traveling is not your forte and you want to hang around here or at least in the eastern U.S., then the best total lunar eclipse between now and a truly great one on June 16, 2076 is the one on June 25-26, 2029, which will rival the July 6, 1982 total lunar eclipse for duration. It is practically an all-night event as the Moon passes exactly through the center of the Earth’s umbra, which means it could be a dark brick red one, or it may disappear all together if there is a previous large volcanic eruption. This lunar eclipse will last 1 hour and 43 minutes from 10:30 P.M. until 12:13 A.M. The partial phase begins at 9:32 P.M. and ends at 1:12 A.M. and the penumbral phase starts at 8:32 P.M., about 13 minutes before sunset and ends at 2:11 A.M., not long before the start of morning twilight! No matter what your plans are, be sure to enjoy one of astronomy’s most casual, relaxing, and beautiful phenomena. You will be thankful you took a night to relax and the heavens will reward you with a keepsake memory better than any photo.