The first total lunar eclipse of 2021 occurs early next week and features the largest Full Moon of the year.
Ready for the lunar eclipse drought to come to an end? It’s been a while since we’ve watched the Moon pass through the Earth’s dark inner shadow, to be sure. 2020 featured four lunar eclipses… all of which were faint penumbrals. In fact, you have to go all the waaaaay back to January 21st, 2019 (remember 2019?) to remember the last total lunar eclipse. But that wait ends next Wednesday morning on May 26th, with a very short total lunar eclipse, centered on the Pacific region.
Can you feel the tremor in the Force? Early next Wednesday morning internet astro-memes collide, in one of the big ticket sky events of the year, with a total lunar eclipse dubbed as — get ready — a Super Blue Blood Moon total lunar eclipse.
Specifics on the eclipse: That’s a mouthful, for sure. This is the first eclipse of 2018, and only one of two featuring totality, lunar or solar. Wednesday morning’s eclipse favors the region centered on the Pacific Rim, with regions of Asia and Australia seeing the evening eclipse at moonrise, while most of North America will see totality early Wednesday morning at moonset. Only the regions of the Canadian Maritimes and the United States east of the Mississippi misses out on the spectacle’s climax, catching a partially eclipsed Moon setting in the west at sunrise.
2018 features four eclipses overall, two lunar and two solar. Paired with this eclipse is a partial solar eclipse on February 15th favoring the very southern tip of South America, followed by another total lunar eclipse this summer on July 27th. The final eclipse for 2018 is a partial solar eclipse on August 11th, favoring northern Europe and northeastern Asia.
What’s all the fuss about? Let’s dissect the eclipse, meme by meme:
Why it’s Super: Totality for this eclipse lasts 1 hour, 16 minutes and 4 seconds, the longest since April 15th, 2014. Full Moon (and maximum duration for this eclipse) occurs at 13:30 Universal Time (UT), just 27 hours after the Moon reaches perigee the day prior on January 30th at 9:55 UT . Note that this isn’t quite the closest perigee of the year in space and time: the January 1st Full Moon perigee beat it out for that title by 2,429 km (1509 miles) and 23 hours.
Why it’s Blue: This is the second Full Moon of the month, making this month’s Moon “Blue” in the modern sense of the term. This definition comes down to us thanks to a misinterpretation in the July 1943 issue of Sky & Telescope. The Maine Farmer’s Almanac once used an even more convoluted definition of a Blue Moon as “the third Full Moon in an astronomical season with four,” and legend has it, used blue ink in the almanac printing to denote that extra spurious Moon… anyone have any old Maine Farmer’s Almanacs in the attic to verify the tale?
Note that Blue Moons aren’t all that rare… the month of March 2018 also hosts two Full Moons, while truncated February 2018 contains none, sometimes referred to as a “Black Moon”.
Why All the Blood: The cone of the Earth’s umbra or dark inner shadow isn’t completely devoid of light. Instead, you’re seeing sunlight from all the Earth’s sunrises and sunsets around its limb, filtered into the shadow of the the planet onto the nearside of the Moon. Standing on the Earthward facing side of the Moon, you would witness a solar eclipse as the Earth passed between the Moon and the Sun. Unlike the neat near fit for solar eclipses on the Earth, however, solar eclipses on the Moon can last over an hour, as the Earth appears about three times larger than the disk of the Sun. And although astronauts have witnessed eclipses from space, no human has yet stood on the Moon and witnessed the ring of fire surrounding the Earth during a solar eclipse.
Tales of the Saros: For saros buffs, this eclipse is member 49 of 74 lunar eclipses for lunar saros cycle 124, stretching all the way back to August 17th, 1152. If you caught the total lunar eclipse on January 21st, 2000, you saw the last eclipse in this cycle. Stick around until April 18th, 2144 AD and you can watch the final total lunar eclipse for saros 124.
Unlike total solar eclipses, lunar eclipses are leisurely affairs. The entire penumbral phase of the eclipse lasts for over 5 hours, though you probably won’t notice the subtle shading on the limb of the Moon until its about halfway immersed in the Earth’s penumbral shadow.
Not all total lunar eclipses are the same. Depending on how deep the Moon passes through the Earth’s shadow and the murkiness of the Earth’s atmosphere, the Moon can appear anywhere from a sickly orange, to a deep brick red during totality… for example, the Moon almost disappeared entirely during a total lunar eclipse shortly after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the early 1990s!
The color of the Moon during totality is known as its Danjon Number, with 4 being bright with a bluish cast on the outer limb of the Moon, and 0 appearing dark and deep red.
This is also one of the only times you can see that the Earth is indeed round with your own eyes as the curve of the shadow cast by our homeworld falls back across the Moon. This curve is the same, regardless of the angle, and whether the Moon is high above near the zenith, or close to the horizon.
Don’t miss the first eclipse of 2018 and the (deep breath) super blue blood Moon total lunar eclipse!
So, heard the one about this weekend’s impending ‘Super-Harvest-Blood-Moon eclipse?’ Yeah, us too. Have no fear; fortunately for humanity, the total lunar eclipse transpiring on Sunday night/Monday morning is a harbinger of nothing more than a fine celestial spectacle, clear skies willing.
This final eclipse of the ongoing lunar tetrad has some noteworthy events worth exploring in terms of science and lore.
The Specifics: First, you almost couldn’t ask for better timing. This weekend’s total lunar eclipse occurs during prime time Sunday night for North and South America, and early Monday morning for Europe, Africa and most of the Middle East. This means the Atlantic Region and surrounding areas will see totality in its entirety. This eclipse occurs very near the northward equinoctial point occupied by the Sun during the Northern Hemisphere Spring equinox in March. The date says it all: this eclipse coincides with the Harvest Moon for 2015, falling just under five days after the September equinox.
For saros buffs, Sunday’s eclipse is part of lunar saros series 137, member 28 of 81. This saros started back in 1564 and produced its first total lunar eclipse just two cycles ago on September 6th 1979. Saros 137 runs all the way out to its final eclipse on April 20th, 2953 AD.
And yes, this upcoming total lunar eclipse occurs very near the closest lunar perigee for 2015. How rare are ‘Supermoon’ lunar eclipses? Well, we took a look at the phenomenon, and found 15 total lunar eclipses occurring near lunar perigee for the current century:
You’ll note that four saroses (the plural of saros) are producing perigee or ‘Proxigean’ total lunar eclipses during this century, including saros 137.
Does the perigee Moon effect the length of totality? It’s an interesting question. Several factors come into play that are worth considering for Sunday night’s eclipse. First, the Moon moves a bit faster near perigee as per Kepler’s second law of motion. Second, the Moon is a shade larger in apparent size, 34’ versus 29’ near apogee. Lastly, the conic section of the Earth’s shadow or umbra is a bit larger closer in; you can fit three Moons side-by-side across the umbra around 400,000 kilometers out from the Earth. Sunday night’s perigee occurs 65 minutes after Full Moon at 2:52 UT/10:52 PM EDT. Perigee Sunday night is 356,876 kilometers distant, the closest for 2015 by just 115 kilometers, and just under 500 kilometers short of the closest perigee that can occur. This is, however, the closest perigee time-wise to lunar totality for the 21st century; you have to go all the way back to 1897 to find one closer, at just four minutes apart.
Now, THAT was and eclipse!
This all culminates in a period for totality on Sunday night of just under 72 minutes in duration, 35 minutes shy of the maximum possible for a central total lunar eclipse. An eclipse won’t top this weekend’s in terms of duration until January 31st 2018.
Here are the key times to watch for on Sunday night:
Penumbral phase begins: 00:12 UT/8:12 PM EDT (on the 27th)
Partial phase begins: 1:07 UT/9:07 PM EDT
Totality begins: 2:11 UT/10:11 PM EDT
Totality ends: 3:23 UT/11:23 PM EDT
Partial phase ends: 4:27 UT/00:27 AM EDT
Penumbral phase ends: 5:22 UT/1:22 AM EDT
Note that one 18 year 11 day and 8 hour saros period later, saros 137 will again produce a perigee eclipse nearly as close as this weekend’s on October 8th, 2033.
The classic hallmark of any total lunar eclipse is the reddening of the Moon. You’re seeing the combination of all the world’s sunsets, refracted into the inky umbra of the Earth and cast upon the surface of the Moon. To date, no human has stood upon the surface of the Moon and gazed upon the spectacle of a solar eclipse caused by the Earth.
Not all eclipses are created equal when it comes to hue and color. The amount of dust and aerosols suspended in the atmosphere can conspire to produce anything from a bright, yellowish-orange tint, to a brick dark eclipse where the Moon almost disappears from view entirely. The recent rapid fire tetrad of four eclipses in 18 months has provided a good study in eclipse color intensity. The deeper the Moon dips into the Earth’s shadow, the darker it will appear… last April’s lunar eclipse was just barely inside the umbra, making many observers question if the eclipse was in fact total at all.
We the describe color of the eclipsed Moon in terms of its number on the Danjon scale, and recent volcanic activity worldwide suggests that we may be in for a darker than normal eclipse… but we could always be in for a surprise!
Old time mariners including James Cook and Christopher Columbus used positional measurements of the eclipsed Moon at sea versus predictions published in almanac tables for land-based observatories to get a one-time fix on their longitude, a fun experiment to try to replicate today. Kris Columbus also wasn’t above using beforehand knowledge of an impending lunar eclipse to help get his crew out of a tight jam.
And speaking of the next perigee Moon total lunar eclipse for saros 137 on October 8th, 2033… if you catch that one, this weekend’s, and saw the September 16th, 1997 lunar eclipse which spanned the Indian Ocean region, you’ll have completed an exeligmos, or a triple saros of eclipses in the same series 54 years and 33 days in length, an exclusive club among eclipse watchers and a great word to land on a triple letter word score in Scrabble…
Here’s another neat challenge: the International Space Station makes two shadow passes during the lunar eclipse over the contiguous United States. The first one occurs during totality, and spans from eastern Louisiana to central Maine from 2:14 to 2:20 UT; the second pass occurs during the final partial phases of the eclipse spanning from southern Arizona to Lake Superior from 3:47 to 3:54 UT. These are un-illuminated shadow passes of the ISS. Observers have captured transits of the ISS during a partial solar eclipse, but to our knowledge, no one has ever caught a transit of the ISS during a total lunar eclipse; ISS astros should also briefly be able to spy the eclipsed Moon from their orbital vantage point. CALSky will have refined passage times about 48 hours prior to Sunday.
Clouded out? Live on the wrong side of the planet? The good folks at the Virtual Telescope Project have got you covered, with a live webcast of the total lunar eclipse starting at 1:00 UT/9:00 PM EDT.
And as the eclipse draws to an end, the question of the hour always is: when’s the next one? Well, the next lunar eclipse is a dim penumbral on March 23rd, 2016, which follows a total solar eclipse for southeastern Asia on March 9th, 2016… but the next total lunar won’t occur until January 31st, 2018, which also happens to be the second Full Moon of the month… a ‘Blue Blood Moon Eclipse?’
Sorry, we had to go there. Hey, we could make the case for Sunday’s eclipse also occurring on World Rabies Day, but perhaps a ‘Rabies Eclipse’ just doesn’t have the SEO traction. Don’t fear the Blood Moon, but do get out and watch the final lunar eclipse of 2015 on Sunday night!
First, the bad news. This weekend’s partial solar eclipse only touches down across the very southern tip of the African continent, Madagascar, a few remote stations in Antarctica, and a few wind-swept islands in the southern Indian Ocean. More than likely, the only views afforded humanity by Sunday’s partial solar eclipse will come out of South Africa, where the eclipse will be about 40% partial around 5:30 Universal Time (UT).
It’s the curious circumstances surrounding the September 13th eclipse that conspire to hide it from the majority of humanity. First, the Moon reaches its ascending node along the plane of the ecliptic at 4:38 UT on Monday, September 14th, nearly 22 hours after New phase. The umbra, or dark inner core of the shadow of Earth’s Moon ‘misses’ the Earth, passing about 380 kilometres or 230 miles above the South Pole. The outer penumbra of the Moon’s shadow just brushes the planet Earth, assuring a 79% maximum obscuration of the Sun over Antarctica around 6:55 UT.
Second, the Moon also reaches its most distant apogee for 2015 on September 14th at 11:29 UT, 406,465 kilometers from the Earth. This is just over 28 hours after New, assuring that the umbra of the Moon falls 25,000 kilometres short of striking the Earth. The eclipse would be an annular one, even if we were in line to see it.
Observers will see the eclipse begin at sunrise over South Africa and the Kalahari Desert, great for photography and catching the eclipse along with foreground objects. Observers will need to follow solar observing safety protocols during all stages of the eclipse. A high value neutral density filter will bring out the silhouette of foreground objects while preserving the image of the partially eclipsed Sun, but remember that such a filter is for photographic use only.
P1, or the first contact of the Moon’s penumbra with the Earth occurs on the morning of the 13th over the Angola/South Africa border at 4:41 UT, and the shadow footprint races across the southern Indian Ocean to depart Earth near the Antarctic coast (P4) at 09:06 UT.
New Moon occurs on September 13th at 6:43 UT, marking the start of lunation 1147.
For saros buffs, this eclipse is a part of saros series 125 (member 54 of 73). Saros 125 started on February 4th, 1060 and produced just four total eclipses in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Mark your calendars, as this saros will end with a brief partial eclipse on April 8th, 2358. The final total eclipse for this particular saros crossed over central Europe on July 16th, 1330, when an observation by monks near Prague noted “the Sun was so greatly obscured that of its great body, only a small extremity like a three night old Moon was seen.”
Missing out on the eclipse? The good folks over at Slooh have got you covered, with a live webcast set to start at 4:30 UT/12:30 AM EDT.
Planning an ad-hoc webcast of your own from the eclipse viewing zone? Let us know!
There are also some chances to nab the eclipse from space via solar observing satellites in low Earth orbit:
The European Space Agency’s Proba-2 will see eclipses on the following passes – 5:01 UT (partial)/6:31 UT (annular) 8:00 UT (partial).
And JAXA’s Hinode mission will see the same at the following times: 5:56 UT (Partial)/7:46 UT (partial). Unfortunately, there are no good circumstances for an ISS transit this time around, as the ISS never passes far enough south in its orbit.
Looking for more? You can always participate in the exciting pastime of slender moonspotting within 24 hours post or prior to the New Moon worldwide. This feat of extreme visual athletics favors the morning of Saturday, September 12th to sight the slim waning crescent Moon the morning before the eclipse, or the evenings of September 13th and 14th, to spy the waxing crescent Moon on the evenings after.
And this eclipse sets us up for the grand finale: the last total lunar eclipse of the ongoing tetrad on September 28th, visible from North America and Europe. And yes, the Moon will be near perigee to boot… expect Super/Blood Moon wackiness to ensue.
Watch for our complete guide to the upcoming lunar eclipse, with observational tips, factoids, eclipse lunacy and more!