Mars Meets the MiniMoon During the Longest Total Lunar Eclipse of the Century

lunar eclipse
lunar eclipse
A blood red moon captured during the total lunar eclipse of January 31st, 2018. Image credit and copyright: Eliot Herman

The Blood Moon cometh.

One of the top astronomy events of 2018 occurs on the evening of Friday, July 27th, when the Moon enters the shadow of the Earth for a total lunar eclipse. In the vernacular that is the modern internet, this is what’s becoming popularly known as a “Blood Moon,” a time when the Moon reddens due to the refracted sunlight from a thousand sunsets falling upon it. Standing on the surface of the Moon during a total lunar eclipse (which no human has yet to do) you would see a red “ring of fire” ’round the limb of the eclipsed Earth.

This is the second total lunar eclipse for 2018, and the middle of a unique eclipse season bracketed by two partial solar eclipses, one on July 13th, and another crossing the Arctic and Scandinavia on August 11th.

The path of the Moon through the Earth’s shadow Friday, along with visibility prospects worldwide. Credit: NASA/GSFC

The July 27th total lunar eclipse technically begins around 17:15 Universal Time (UT), when the Moon enters the bright penumbral edge of the Earth’s shadow. Expect the see a slight shading on the southwest edge of the Moon’s limb about 30 minutes later. The real action begins around 18:24 UT, when the Moon starts to enter the dark inner umbra and the partial phases of the eclipse begin. Totality runs from 19:30 UT to 21:13 UT, and the cycle reverses through partial and penumbral phases, until the eclipse ends at 23:29 UT.

Centered over the Indian Ocean region, Africa, Europe and western Asia get a good front row seat to the entire total lunar eclipse. Australia and eastern Asia see the eclipse in progress at moonset, and South America sees the eclipse in progress at moonrise just after sunset. Only North America sits this one out.

Now, this total lunar eclipse is special for a few reasons.

First off, we’ll have the planet Mars at opposition less than 15 hours prior to the eclipse. This means the Red Planet will shine at a brilliant magnitude -2.8, just eight degrees from the crimson Moon during the eclipse, a true treat and an easy crop to get both in frame. We fully expect to see some great images of Mars at opposition along with the eclipsed Moon.

Mars versus the eclipsed Moon on Friday. Credit: Stellarium

How close can the two get? Well, stick around until April 27th, 2078 and you can see the Moon occult (pass in front of) Mars during a penumbral lunar eclipse as seen from South America.

And speaking of occultations, the Moon occults some interesting stars during totality Friday, the brightest of which is the +5.9 magnitude double star Omicron Capricorni (SAO 163626) as seen from Madagascar and the southern tip of Africa. Omicron Capricorni has a wide separation of 22″.

The occultation path of Omicron Capricorni during Friday’s eclipse. Credit: Occult 4.2.

The second unique fact surrounding this eclipse is one you’ve most likely already heard: it is indeed the longest one for this century… barely. This occurs because the Moon reaches its descending node along the ecliptic on July 27th at 22:40 UT, just 21 minutes after leaving the umbral shadow of the Earth. This makes for a very central eclipse, nearly piercing the umbral shadow of the Earth right through its center.

Totality on Friday lasts for 1 hour, 42 minutes and 57 seconds. This was last beat on July 16th, 2000 with a duration of 1 hour, 46 minutes and 24 seconds (2001 is technically the first year of the 21st century). The duration for Friday’s eclipse won’t be topped until June 9th 2123 (1 hour 46 minutes six seconds), making it the longest for a 123 year span.

The longest total lunar eclipse over the span of 5,000 years from 2000 BC to 3000 AD was on May 31st, 318 AD at 106.6 minutes in duration.

A Minimoon Eclipse

Finally, a third factor is assisting this eclipse in its longevity is the onset of the MiniMoon: The Moon reaches apogee at July 27th, 5:22 UT, 14 hours and 37 minutes prior to Full and the central time of the eclipse. This is the most distant Full Moon of the year for 2018 (406,222 km at apogee) the 2nd most distant apogee for 2018. Apogee on January 15th, beats it out by only 237 kilometers. This not only gives the Moon a slightly smaller size visually at 29.3′, versus 34.1′ near perigee, less than half of the 76′ arcminute diameter of the Earth’s shadow. This also means that the Moon is moving slightly slower in its orbit, making a more stately pass through the Earth’s shadow.

Going, going… the stages of a lunar eclipse. Credit: Dave Dickinson.

What will the Moon look like during the eclipse? Not all total lunar eclipses are the same, but I’d expect a dark, brick red hue from such a deep eclipse. The color of the Moon during a eclipse is described as its Danjon number, ranging from a bright (4) to dark murky copper color (0) during totality.

Tales of the Saros

This particular eclipse is member 38 of the 71 lunar eclipses in saros series 129, running from June 10th, 1351 all the way out to the final eclipse in the series on July 24th, 2613 AD. If you caught the super-long July 16th, 2000 eclipse (the longest for the 20th century) then you saw the last one in the series, and the next one for the series occurs on August 7th, 2036. Collect all three, and you’ve completed a triple exeligmos series, a fine word in Scrabble to land on a triple word score.

Photographing the Moon

If you can shoot the Moon, you can shoot a total lunar eclipse, though a minimum focal length lens of around 200mm is needed to produce a Moon much larger that a dot. The key moment is the onset of totality, when you need to be ready to rapidly dial the exposure settings down from the 1/100th of a second range down to 1 second or longer. Be careful not to lose sight of the Moon in the viewfinder all together!

Are you watching the eclipse during moonrise or moonset? This is a great time to shoot the eclipsed Moon along with foreground objects… you can also make an interesting observation around this time, and nab the eclipsed Moon and the Sun above the local horizon at the same time in what’s termed a selenelion. This works mainly because the Earth’s shadow is larger than the apparent diameter of the Moon, allowing it to be cast slightly off to true center after sunrise or just before sunset. Gaining a bit of altitude and having a low, flat horizon helps, as the slight curve of the Earth also gives the Sun and Moon a tiny boost. For this eclipse, the U2-U3 umbral contact zone for a selenelion favors eastern Brazil, the UK and Scandinavia at moonrise, and eastern Australia, Japan and northeastern China at moonset.

Incidentally, a selenelion is the second visual proof you see during a lunar eclipse that the Earth is indeed round, the first being the curve of the planet’s shadow seen at all angles as it falls across the Moon.

Another interesting challenge would be to capture a transit of the International Space Station during the eclipse, either during the partial or total phases… to our knowledge, this has never been done during a lunar eclipse. This Friday, South America gets the best shots at a lunar eclipse transit of the ISS:

ISS transit paths (revised) during Friday’s eclipse, including times in UT and Moon phases. The northern and southern limits of the paths mark the point where the Moon is no longer visible. Created by the author using CalSky. (Thanks to PAHLES in comments below for pointing out the errors in the first map!)

Be sure to check CalSky for a transit near you.

Watch Friday’s eclipse live online. Credit: Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope Project.

Live on the wrong continent, or simply have cloudy skies? Gianluca Masi and the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0 have you covered, with a live webcast of the eclipse from the heart of Rome, Italy on July 27th starting at 18:30 UT.

Be sure to catch Friday’s total lunar eclipse, either in person or online… we won’t have another one until January 21st, 2019.

Learn about eclipses, occultations, the motion of the Moon and more in our new book: Universe Today’s Guide to the Cosmos: Everything You Need to Know to Become an Amateur Astronomer now available for pre-order.

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!