12 February 2008

Total Lunar Eclipse on February 20th

Mark your calendar for Wednesday February 20. Weather permitting, we will experience a total eclipse of the moon, one of the best timed eclipses in years and the last total lunar eclipse until December 2010. This one is timed well because it will be underway at sunset and will be at its peak during the 7:00 pm hour, much easier to see than the eclipse last August which took place in the middle of the night in San Francisco.

A total lunar eclipse is a beautiful showcase of many astronomical phenomena. Lunar eclipses were used by scientists hundreds of years ago to prove that the Earth is round because the darkening of the Moon is actually being caused by the curved shadow of the Earth. The early and late phases of a lunar eclipse are punctuated by the curved shadow of the Earth moving across the otherwise full Moon. These phases take a little over an hour to happen and as the Moon glides deeper into Earth's shadow, the illuminated surface of the Moon becomes less and less.

During the period of "totality" all direct sunlight is obscured by the Earth and the Moon fades into a dark disk, a rather stunning image to behold. Every total lunar eclipse has a different appearance because a small amount of sunlight is refracted by the atmosphere of the Earth and illuminates the otherwise-darkened surface of the Moon. The same effect that causes the sky to turn red, orange or pink at sunset is responsible for the color that you see on the Moon. Think of the light as the collective light of all the sunrises and sunsets around the entire globe. Since no direct sunlight is reaching the surface of the Moon during totality, anything we see will have been first refracted by the Earth's atmosphere, then it will have traveled 240,000 miles to the moon, and then will reflect back from the Moon to the Earth for us to enjoy!

If the Moon is very dark during the eclipse, you should be able to spot two bright objects on either side of the Moon. These are the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo, and the planet Saturn. The entire grouping should fit nicely in the field of view of binoculars so get out whatever you have, dust it off, and pull up a chair. The totality phase of the eclipse will be from 7:00 until 7:52 pm.

By watching the eclipse from start to finish you can get a very good feel for just how far and fast the Moon moves in its orbit around the Earth. When the Sun sets on the evening of the 20th, the Moon will rise due east and quickly move across the southern half of the sky. This motion is due to the rotation of the Earth on its axis. However, the darkening of the Moon as it moves through the shadow of the Earth is due to the orbiting of the Moon around the Earth, something which is slower and thus more subtle. By watching the changing position of the Moon against Regulus and Saturn, you will be able to get a sense how far it moves against the background stars in a short span of time.

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