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.
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“.
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?
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:
Eclipse Events EDT CDT MDT PDT
|Penumbra eclipse begins
|Partial eclipse begins
|Total eclipse begins
|Total eclipse ends
|Partial eclipse ends
|Penumbra eclipse ends
* During the penumbral phase, shading won’t be obvious until ~30 minutes before partial eclipse.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.