Don’t Blink! April 4th Lunar Eclipse Shortest of the Century

Get ready for one awesome total lunar eclipse early Saturday morning April 4th. For the third time in less than a year, the Moon dips into Earth’s shadow, its dazzling white globe turning sunset red right before your eyes.  All eclipses are not-to-miss events, but Saturday’s totality will be the shortest in a century. Brief but beautiful – just like life. Read on to find out how to make the most of it.

Four total lunars in succession is called a tetrad. During the 21st century there are nine sets of tetrads. Credit: NASA
Four total lunar eclipses in succession with no partials in between is called a tetrad. The April 4th eclipse is part of a tetrad that started last April and will wrap up on September 28. During the 21st century there will be eight sets of tetrads. Credit: NASA

Lunar eclipses don’t usually happen in any particular order. A partial eclipse is followed by a total is followed by a penumbral and so on. Instead, we’re in the middle of a tetrad, four total eclipses in a row with no partials in between. The final one happens on September 28.  Even more remarkable, part or all of them are visible from the U.S. Tetrads will be fairly common in the 21st century with eight in all. We’re lucky — between 1600 and 1900 there were none! For an excellent primer on the topic check out fellow Universe Today writer David Dickinson’s “The Science Behind the Blood Moon Tetrad“.

The Moon moves out of total eclipse and into partial phases during the second of the four tetrad eclipses on October 8, 2015. Credit: Bob King
The partially eclipsed Moon on October 8, 2015.  For skywatchers across the eastern half of North America, this is about how the Moon will appear shortly before it sets. Those living further west will see totality. Credit: Bob King

Lots of people have taken to calling the tetrad eclipses Blood Moons, referring to the coppery color of lunar disk when steeped in Earth’s shadow and the timing of both April events on the Jewish Passover. Me? I prefer Bacon-and-Eggs Moon. For many of us, the eclipse runs right up till sunrise with the Moon setting in bright twilight around 6:30 a.m. What better time to enjoy a celebratory breakfast with friends after packing away your gear?

Map showing where the April 4 lunar eclipse will be penumbral, partial and total. Inset shows a world map. Credit: Larry Koehn / shadowandsubstance.com
Map showing where the April 4 lunar eclipse will be penumbral, partial and total. World map shown in inset. Credit: Larry Koehn / shadowandsubstance.com Inset: Fred Espenak

But seriously, Saturday morning’s eclipse will prove challenging for some. While observers in far western North America, Hawaii, Japan, New Zealand and Australia will witness the entire event, those in the mountain states will see the Moon set while still in totality. Meanwhile, skywatchers in the Midwest and points East will see only the partial phases in a brightening dawn sky. Here are the key times of eclipse events by time zone:

A total lunar eclipse occurs only during Full Moons when the Sun, Earth and Moon form a straight line. The Moon slips directly behind Earth into its shadow. The outer part of the shadow or penumbra is a mix of sunlight and shadow. The inner cone, called the umbra, the Sun is completely blocked from view. However, light refracted by Earth's atmosphere is bent into the umbra where it colors the eclipsed Moon red.
A total lunar eclipse occurs only during full moon phase when the Sun, Earth and Moon lie in a straight line. The Moon slips directly behind Earth into its shadow. The outer part of the shadow or penumbra is a mix of sunlight and shadow and only partially dark. From  the inner shadow, called the umbra, the Sun is completely blocked from view. A small amount of sunlight refracted or bent by Earth’s atmosphere into the umbra, spills into the shadow, coloring the eclipsed Moon red.

Eclipse Events                                     EDT              CDT              MDT             PDT

Penumbra eclipse begins 5:01 a.m. 4:01 a.m. 3:01 a.m. 2:01 a.m.
Partial eclipse begins 6:16 a.m. 5:16 a.m. 4:16 a.m. 3:16 a.m.
Total eclipse begins ——– ——– 5:58 a.m. 4:58 a.m.
Greatest eclipse ——– ——– 6:00 a.m. 5:00 a.m.
Total eclipse ends ——– ——– 6:03 a.m. 5:03 a.m.
Partial eclipse ends ——— ——– ——– 6:45 a.m.
Penumbra eclipse ends ——— ——— ——– ——–

* During the penumbral phase, shading won’t be obvious until ~30 minutes before partial eclipse.

Partial eclipse, when the Moon first enters Earth's dark, inner shadow called the umbra, begins at 5:16 a.m. CDT near the start of morning twilight. Totality begins at 6:58 a.m. with the Moon already set for the eastern half of the country.  Credit: Fred Espenak
Partial eclipse, when the Moon first enters Earth’s dark umbral shadow, begins at 5:16 a.m. CDT near the start of morning twilight. Totality begins at 6:58 a.m. with the Moon already set for the eastern half of the country. Credit: Fred Espenak

This eclipse will also be the shortest total eclipse of the 21st century; our satellite spends just 4 minutes and 43 seconds inside Earth’s umbra or shadow core. That’s only as long as a typical solar eclipse totality. Ah, the irony.

Better have your camera ready or you’ll miss it. The maps below show the maximum amount of the Moon visible shortly before setting from two eastern U.S. cities and the height of the totally eclipsed Moon from two western locations. Click each panel for more details about local circumstances.

The Earth's shadow will take only a small bite out of the Moon before sunrise (6:47 a.m.) as seen from Washington D.C. Source: Stellarium
The Earth’s shadow will take only a small bite out of the Moon before sunrise (6:47 a.m.) as seen from Washington D.C. From all mainland U.S. locations Virgo’s brightest star Spica will appear about 10° to the left of the Moon. Source: Stellarium
Here's the view from Chicago where sunrise occurs at 6:27 a.m. Source: Stellarium
Here’s the view from Chicago where sunrise occurs at 6:27 a.m.  Source: Stellarium
Totality will be visible From Denver, Colorado with the Moon low in the western sky. Source: Stellarium
Totality will be visible From Denver, Colorado with the Moon low in the western sky in morning twilight. Sunrise is 6:42 a.m. Source: Stellarium
Seattle and the West Coast get a great view of totality in a dark sky. The final partial phases will also be visible. Sunrise there is 6:40 a.m. Source: Stellarium
Seattle and the West Coast get a great view of totality in a dark sky. The final partial phases will also be visible. Sunrise there is 6:40 a.m. Source: Stellarium

Now that you know times and shadow coverage, let’s talk about the fun part — what to look for as the event unfolds. You’ll need to find a location in advance with a good view to the southwest as most of the action happens in that direction. Once that detail’s taken care of and assuming clear weather, you can kick back in a folding chair or with your back propped against a hillside and enjoy.

During the early partial phases you may not see the shadowed portion of the Moon with the naked eye. Binoculars and telescopes will show it plainly. But once the Moon's about 50% covered, the reddish-orange tint of the shadowed half becomes obvious. Credit: Jim Schaff
During the early partial phases you may not see the shadowed portion of the Moon with the naked eye. Binoculars and telescopes will show it plainly. But once the Moon is about 50% covered, the reddish-orange tint of the shadowed half becomes obvious. During total eclipse (right), the color is intense.  Credit: Jim Schaff

The entire eclipse can be enjoyed without any optical aid, though I recommend a look through binoculars now and then. The eclipsed Moon appears distinctly three-dimensional with only the slightest magnification, hanging there like an ornament among the stars. The Earth’s shadow appears to advance over the Moon, but the opposite is true; the Moon’s eastward orbital motion carries it deeper and deeper into the umbra.

Nibble by nibble the sunlit Moon falls into shadow. By the time it’s been reduced to half, the shaded portion looks distinctly red even to the naked eye. Notice that the shadow is curved. We live on a spherical planet and spheres cast circular shadows. Seeing the globe of Earth projected against the Moon makes the roundness of our home planet palpable.

Artist view of Earth totally eclipsing the sun as viewed from the moon. Low angled sunlight filtered by our atmosphere is reddened in exactly the same way a setting sun is reddened. That red light bathes the moon’s surface which reflects a bit of it back toward Earth, giving us a red moon during totality.
A simulated view looking back at Earth from the Moon during a total lunar eclipse on Earth. Sunlight grazing Earth’s circumference gets filtered by our atmosphere in exactly the same way the setting or rising Sun looks red. All the cooler colors have been scattered away by air and Red light, bent into the umbra by atmospheric refraction, bathes the lunar surface in red. As you might have guessed, when we see a total lunar eclipse on Earth, lunar inhabitants see a total eclipse of the Sun by Earth. Source: Stellarium

When totality arrives, the entire lunar globe throbs with orange, copper or rusty red. These sumptuous hues originate from sunlight filtered and bent by Earth’s atmosphere into the umbral shadow. Atmospheric particles have removed all the cooler colors, leaving the reds and oranges from a billion sunrises and sunsets occurring around the planet’s circumference. Imagine for a moment standing on the Moon looking back. Above your head would hang the black disk of Earth, nearly four times the size of the Moon in our sky, ringed by a narrow corona of fiery light.

Color varies from one eclipse to the next depending on the amount of water, dust and volcanic ash suspended in Earth’s atmosphere. The December 30, 1982 eclipse was one of the darkest in decades due to a tremendous amount of volcanic dust from the eruption of the Mexican volcano El Chichon earlier that year.

The more particles and haze, the greater the light absorption and darker the Moon. That said, this eclipse should be fairly bright because the Moon does not tread deeply into Earth’s shadow. It’s in for a quick dip of totality and then resumes partial phases.

The Moon's color can vary from yellow-orange to dark, smoky brown during totality depending on the state of the atmosphere. You can also see lots of stars in the sky right up to the Moon's edge when it's in Earth's shadow. This photo from last April's eclipse. Credit: Bob King
The Moon’s color can vary from yellow-orange to dark, smoky brown during totality depending on the state of the atmosphere. You can also see lots of stars in the sky right up to the Moon’s edge when it’s in Earth’s shadow. This photo from last April’s eclipse. Spica is below the Moon and Mars to the right. Credit: Bob King

It’s northern edge, located close to the outer fringe of Earth’s umbra, should appear considerably brighter than the southern, which is closer to the center or darkest part of the umbra.

Earth's shadow exposed! During a lunar eclipse that occurs at dusk or dawn (like  the April 4th one and this one last October) we have the rare opportunity to see Earth's shadow on the distant Moon at the same time it's visible as a dark purple band cast on the upper atmosphere as seen here on October 8, 2015. Credit: Bob King
Earth’s shadow exposed! When a lunar eclipse occurs at dusk or dawn we have the rare opportunity to see Earth’s shadow on the distant Moon at the same time it’s visible as a dark purple band cast on the upper atmosphere as seen here on October 8, 2015. Credit: Bob King

Besides the pleasure of seeing the Moon change color, watch for the sky to darken as totality approaches. Eclipses begin with overwhelming moonlight and washed out, star-poor skies. As the Moon goes into hiding, stars return in a breathtaking way over a strangely eerie landscape. Don’t forget to turn around and admire the glorious summer Milky Way rising in the eastern sky.

Lunar eclipses remind us we live in a Solar System made of these beautiful, moving parts that never fail to inspire awe when we look up to notice.

In case you can’t watch the eclipse from your home due to weather or circumstance, our friends at the Virtual Telescope Project  and SLOOH will stream it online.

Get Ready for the April 15, 2014 Total Lunar Eclipse: Our Complete Guide

 April the 15th: In the United States, it’s a date dreaded by many, as the date to file taxes – or beg for an extension – looms large. But this year, Tax Day gives lovers of the sky something to look forward to, as the first of four total lunar eclipses for 2014 and 2015 occurs on the night of April 14th/15th favoring North and South America.

The circumstances for the April 15th, 2105 eclipse.
The circumstances for the April 15th, 2014 eclipse. The top chart shows the path of the Moon through the umbra, and the bottom chart shows the visibility region (light to shaded areas) Click here for a technical description. Credit:  Eclipse Predictions by Fred Espenak, NASA/GSFC.

This marks the first total lunar eclipse visible from since December 10th 2011, which was visible at moonset from North America, and marks the start of the first of two eclipse seasons for 2014. Totality will last 1 hour, 17 minutes and 48 seconds, and will be visible in its entirety from the central Atlantic westward to eastern Australia. Unlike a total solar eclipse, which occurs along a narrow track, a total lunar eclipse can be viewed by the entire moonward facing hemisphere of the Earth.

Tracing the umbra: a mosaic of the December 2010 eclipse. Photos by author.
Tracing the umbra: a mosaic of the December 2010 eclipse. Photos by author.

The action begins at 4:37 Universal Time (UT)/12:37 AM EDT, when the Moon enters the western edge of the Earth’s shadow known as the penumbra. The Moon will be completely immersed in the penumbra by 5:58 UT/1:58 AM EDT, but don’t expect to see anything more than a faint tan shading that’s slightly darker on the Moon’s northeastern edge.

The real action begins moments later, as the Moon encounters the ragged edge of the umbra, or the inner core of the Earth’s shadow. When does the umbra first become apparent to you? Totality then begins at 7:06 UT/3:06 AM EDT and lasts until 8:24 UT/4:24 AM EDT, with mid-eclipse occurring just south of the center of the Earth’s shadow at 7:46 UT/3:46 AM EDT.

Finally, the eclipse ends as the Moon slides out of the penumbra at 10:37 UT/ 6:37 AM EDT.  Michael Zeiler (@EclipseMaps) has complied a fine video guide to the eclipse:

Field guide to the total lunar eclipse of April 14 – 15, 2014 from Michael Zeiler on Vimeo.

This eclipse is also notable for being part of a series of four lunar eclipses in 2014 & 2015, known as a “tetrad.” NASA eclipse expert Fred Espenak notes that this series of eclipses is also notable in that all four are visible in part or in their entirety from the United States. We’re in a cycle of 9 sets of tetrads for the 21st century, which began with the first set in 2003. Before that, you have to go all the way back to the 16th century for the last set of eclipse tetrads!

4AM EDT. Credit Starry Night Education software.
The position of the Moon within the Earth’s umbra on the morning of April 15th at 4AM EDT/8UT. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

For saros buffs, the April 15th eclipse is Member 56 of 75 of saros 122, which began on August 14th 1022 A.D. and runs out until a final penumbral eclipse of the series on October 29th, 2338. There are only two total eclipses left in this particular saros, one in 2032 and 2050. If you caught the total lunar eclipse of April 4th, 1996, you saw the last lunar eclipse in this same saros series.

Lunar eclipses have turned up at some curious junctures in history. For example, a lunar eclipse preceded the fall of Constantinople in 1453. A 2004 lunar eclipse also fell on the night that the Red Sox won the World Series after an 86 year losing streak, though of course, lunar eclipses kept on occurring during those losing years as well. Christopher Columbus was known to evoke an eclipse on occasion to get him and his crew out of a jam, and also attempted to use a lunar eclipse to gauge his position at sea using a method first described by Ptolemy while studying the lunar eclipse of September 20th, 331 B.C.

A handful of stars in the +8th to +12th magnitude range will be occulted by the eclipsed Moon as well. Brad Timerson of the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA) has put together a list, along with graze line prospects across the United States. The brightest star to be occulted by the eclipsed Moon is +5th magnitude 76 Virginis across western South America and Hawaii:

Credit: Occult 4.0
The occultation footprint of 76 Virginis during the April 15th lunar eclipse. Credit: Occult 4.0

Note that the bright star Spica will be only just over a degree from the eclipsed Moon, and Mars will also be nearby, just a week past its 2014 opposition. And to top it off, Saturn is just one constellation to the east in Libra!

During the partial phases of the eclipse, watch for the Moon to take on a “Pacman-like” appearance. The Earth’s umbra is just under three times the size of the Moon, and the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos used this fact and a little geometry to gauge the distance to our natural satellite in the 3rd century B.C.

As totality approaches, expect the innermost rim of the Moon to take on a ruddy hue. This is the famous “combination of all the sunrises and sunsets” currently underway worldwide as light is bent through the Earth’s atmosphere into its shadow. It’s happening every night, and during the totality of a lunar eclipse is the only chance that we get to see it.

4AM Credit: Stellarium
Looking to the southwest at 4 AM EDT from latitude 30 degrees north on the morning of April 15th. Credit: Stellarium.

You don’t need anything more sophisticated than the naked eye or “Mark 1 eyeball” to enjoy a lunar eclipse, though it’s fun to watch through binoculars or a low-power telescope field of view. One interesting project that has been ongoing is to conduct timings for the moment when the umbra contacts various craters on the Moon. It’s a curious mystery that the Earth’s shadow varies by a small (1%) but perceptible amount from one eclipse to the next, and efforts by amateur observers may go a long way towards solving this riddle.

Said color of the fully eclipsed Moon can vary considerably as well: the Danjon scale describes the appearance of the eclipsed Moon, from bright and coppery red (Danjon 4) to so dark as to almost be invisible (Danjon 0). This is a product of the amount of dust, volcanic ash and aerosols currently aloft in the Earth’s atmosphere.  During the lunar eclipse of December 9th, 1992 the Moon nearly disappeared all together, due largely to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo the year prior.

A lunar eclipse also presents a chance to nab what’s known as a Selenelion. This occurs when the Sun and the totally eclipsed Moon appear above the local horizon at the same time. This is possible mainly because the Earth’s shadow is larger than the Moon, allowing it to linger a bit inside the umbra after sunrise or before sunset. Gaining some altitude is key to making this unusual observation.  During the April 15th eclipse, selenelion sightings favor the Mid-Atlantic and Greenland where totality is underway at sunrise and eastern Australia, where the reverse is true at sunset.

Want to have a go at measuring the brightness or magnitude of the eclipsed Moon? Here’s a bizarre but fun way to do it: take a pair of binoculars and compare the pinpoint Moon during totality to the magnitude of a known star, such as Antares or Spica.

Note that to do this, you’ll first need to gauge the magnitude extinction of your particular binoculars: NASA’s got a table for that, or you could field test the method days prior on Venus, currently shining at a brilliant -4.2 in the dawn. Hey, what’s a $1,000 pair of image-stabilized binocs for?

And of course, weather prospects are the big question mark for the event. Mid-April weather for North America is notoriously fickle. We’ll be watching the Clear Sky Chart and Skippy Sky for prospects days before the eclipse.

Photography during an eclipse is fun and easy to do, and you’ll have the waxing gibbous Moon available to practice on days prior to event. Keep in mind, you’ll need to slow down those shutter speeds as the Moon enters into totality, we’re talking going down from 1/60th of a second down to ¼” pretty quickly. In the event of a truly dark eclipse, the Moon may vanish in the view finder all together. Don’t be afraid to step exposures up to the 1 to 4 second range in this instance, as you’ve got over an hour to experiment.

Photo by author
Our “eclipse hunting rig…” the DSLR is piggy-backed to shoot stills on the main scope, which will shoot video. Note that the “f/34 field stop” will most likely be removed!  Photo by author

Thus far, only one webcast for the eclipse has surfaced, courtesy of the venerable Slooh. We’ll most likely be doing a follow up roundup of eclipse webcasts as they present themselves, as well as a look at prospects for things like a transit of the ISS in front of the eclipsed Moon and weather forecasts closer to show time.

And speaking of spacecraft, China’s Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu rover will have a fine view of a solar eclipse overhead from their Mare Imbrium vantage point, as will NASA’s LRO and LADEE orbiters overhead. In fact, NASA hinted last year that the April 15th eclipse might spell the end of LADEE entirely…

And thus marks the start of eclipse season one of two for 2014. Next up will be a curious non-central annular solar eclipse over Antarctica on April 29th, followed by another total lunar eclipse on October 8th, and a fourth and final partial solar eclipse of the year for North America of October 23rd.

Watch this space and follow us on Twitter as @Astroguyz, as we’ll be “all eclipses, all the time,” for April… no new taxes guaranteed!

Next up: Heard the one about the Blood Moon? Yeah, us too… join us as we debunk the latest lunacy surrounding the eclipse tetrad!

–      Got pics of the lunar eclipse? Send ‘em in to Universe Today, as a post-eclipse photo round up is a very real possibility!