Rare Holiday Lunar Eclipse

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 19, 2010 – 6:01 pm -

Total lunar eclipse

In the over night hours of December 20/21, the full Moon will pass through the Earth’s shadow for skywatchers all across the Americas. The total phase of the eclipse will last 1 hour and 12 minutes, and the Moon will be high in the southern sky and can be seen conveniently even from downtown and bedroom windows.

A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Full Moon passes into the shadow of the Earth. There is absolutely no danger when looking at a lunar eclipse with the naked eye or when looking at it through a telescope or binoculars, since an eclipse of the Moon only appears sometime after sunset — when the Sun is below the horizon and you are looking at the reflected sunlight off the lunar surface.

Animation of how the Moon, Earth and Sun are aligned during a total lunar eclipse. Note how the full moon enters the Earths shadow.

Animation of how the Moon, Earth and Sun are aligned during a total lunar eclipse. Note how the full moon enters the Earth's shadow.

Viewers are free to enjoy the potential brilliant colors of the Moon during the eclipse without taking any special precautions. Although you would expect the Moon to disappear completely when it enters the dark shadow of the Earth, the atmosphere bends some sunlight around the edge of the Earth so the Moon seems to change color as it moves into the shadow. The color of each total lunar eclipse depends on how much dust and pollution our atmosphere contains at that time, so the eclipsed Moon may appear dark brown, deep red, or bright orange. In December 1992, volcanic dust from the Mount Pinatubo eruption made the Moon completely disappear during the total lunar eclipse.

WHEN AND WHERE TO LOOK ON Monday night/Tuesday morning

This December eclipse will become visible to the naked eye when the Moon enters the umbral phase at 1:32 a.m. EST (Dec.21/Tuesday). The total eclipse begins at 2:41 a.m. and lasts 72 minutes. The moon finally emerges from the dark portion of the Earth’s shadow at 5:01 am Eastern.

If you can’t stay up and watch the entire event – it is a work day after all- then I would set my alarm clock to mid eclipse time (3:17 am EST) when the moon is in the deepest part of Earth’s shadow and most colourful.  And if it is cold where you are you can enjoy the event just by peeking out your home window – and stay warm! Remember the Moon will probably be near the overhead sky when this happens – so look way up!

The entire eclipse will be best seen from North America and western South America while skywatchers in most of Europe and Africa will only witness the moon set while the eclipse is in progress. None of the event is visible from south and east Africa, the Middle East or South Asia.

This total eclipse of the Moon is the first one visible in North America since February 2008. The next total lunar eclipse for North America occurs in 3 years, on April 14, 2014, weather permitting.

Note: This event is made that much more special with the total eclipse pairing up with the winter solstice within the same day. Winter officially begins at 6:38 pm Eastern Time Tuesday, Dec.21st and earlier that morning the eclipse occurs.  How rare is this event? The last time there was a December solstice-total eclipse was 372 years ago in 1638 AD!!

Lunar Eclipse Timetable, December 20-21, 2010

Event                   EST      CST        MST        PST
Penumbra first seen?  12:55 am   11:55 pm  10:55 pm   9:55 pm
Partial eclipse begins 1:33 am  12:33 am  11:33 pm  10:33 pm
Total eclipse begins   2:41 am  1:41 am   12:41 am   11:41 pm
Mid-eclipse            3:17 am  2:17 am   1:17 am   12:17 am
Total eclipse ends     3:53 am  2:53 am   1:53 am   12:53 am
Partial eclipse ends   5:01 am  4:01 am   3:01 am    2:01 am
Penumbra last seen?    5:35 am  4:35 am   3:35 am    2:35 am
Courtesy of Fred Espenak

Courtesy of Fred Espenak

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