Tonight, December 20/21, 2010, will bring a spectacular and unusually rare, total lunar eclipse that will be visible all across North America from start to finish, which is a real bonus for avid sky watchers and the general public alike as not all eclipses of the Moon are so conveniently timed. So, with the eclipse being visible all over the nation, what can you expect to see, skies permitting.
At first glance to people not familiar with astronomy, the phases near totality may not look that different than any thin crescent Moon, except that the thin crescent is high in the sky and not near the horizon. However, the other partial stages produce some strange looking Moons that cannot be seen at any other time.
When the Moon first enters the umbra (the dark part of the Earth’s shadow), a slight, rounded corner of the Moon will start to disappear into shadow. As time progresses, the shaded, curved section of the Moon will get larger and larger,looking like an unnaturally fat crescent until the Moon nears full coverage, at which point the Moon looks like a familiar thin crescent except for it’s high in the sky location. However the real treat comes at totality, or full coverage.
A few minutes before totality, the Moon will the on a distinctly reddish hue. Why? The sunlight coming through the atmosphere is scattered by the particles, both natural and man-made, floating in the air. Result: the most wavelengths of color are reflected away from the Moon, except for the reds, which continue on and fall on the Moon, thus giving it the shade of color unique to eclipses. In total, totality of this eclipse will last a little over an hour before the Moon starts to move out of the umbra, thus beginning a reverse partial stage.
Now, where to see the eclipse?
The great news is that, since this is an event involving the Moon, the eclipse can be observed from anywhere, even in brightly lit downtown Cleveland if that’s where you reside. However, to get the full impact of the eclipse, traveling out to the country is a good idea. Anyone who has ever been out in a dark field on a moonless night knows how dark it can be and how night seemingly turns to day the moment a Full Moon peeks over the horizon. Well, in a total lunar eclipse, things will work in reverse as the bright, Moonlit sky will essentially become a dark, Moonless night as totality nears. Basically, the effect must be seen to be believed, so try and get out to the country if at all possible tonight.
So, planning to go out and see the eclipse? Be sure to check your local weather forecast or, even better, a nearby Clear Sky Clock as it will give hourly cloud forecasts. As for the Cleveland forecast, things are looking pretty cloudy, so cross your fingers for a few breaks in the clouds, preferably during totality!
For more fun, why not try photographing the eclipse through your scope, with your dSLR, or even with a cheap point and shoot digital camera?
Best wishes for clear skies.
For more astro news:
The origin of the Geminid Meteor Shower
Geminid viewing tips
Geminid Meteor Shower continues past the peak
Space shuttle Discovery to be rolled back from launch pad
Smash the asteroid into Earth, see what happens
Total lunar eclipse is coming!
A most rare eclipse
When to see the eclipse
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