Was This Past Weekend’s Lunar Eclipse Really Total?

Millions of viewers across the western United States and across the Pacific, to include Australia and New Zealand were treated to a fine Easter weekend lunar eclipse on Saturday. And while this was the third of the ongoing tetrad of four lunar eclipses, it was definitely worth getting up early for and witnessing firsthand.

But was it truly total at all?

To Recap: The April 4th eclipse featured the shortest advertised duration for totality for the 21st century, clocking in at just four minutes and 43 seconds in length. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to 1529 to find a shorter span of totality, at one minute and 42 seconds. And you’ll have to wait until September 11th, 2155 to find one that tops it in terms of brevity.

The April 4th lunar eclipse over the Las Vegas strip. Image credit and copyright: John Lybrand
The April 4th lunar eclipse over the Las Vegas strip. Image credit and copyright: John Lybrand

We wrote recently about the saros cycle, and how this past weekend’s eclipse was the first in lunar saros series 132 to feature totality.

A fascinating discussion as to whether this was a de facto total lunar eclipse has recently sprung up on the message boards and a recent Sky and Telescope article online.

The geometry that creates a total lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA
The geometry that creates a total lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA

It all has to do with how you gauge the shape and size of the Earth’s shadow.

This is a surprisingly complex affair, as the Earth’s atmosphere gives the umbra a ragged and indistinct edge. If you’ve ever taken our challenge to determine your longitude using a lunar eclipse — just as mariners such as Christopher Columbus did while at sea — then you know how tough it is to get precise contact timings. There has been an ongoing effort over the years to model the size changes in Earth’s shadow using crater contact times during a lunar eclipse.

Many observers have commented in forums and social media that the northern limb of the Moon stayed pretty bright throughout the brief stretch of totality for Saturday’s eclipse.

What happens (in the skies over) Vegas... the lunar eclipse captured from the Luxor Hotel. Image credit and copyright: Rob Sparks
What happens (in the skies over) Vegas… the lunar eclipse captured from the Luxor Hotel. Image credit and copyright: Rob Sparks

“There are 3 ways of computing the magnitude of a lunar eclipse,” Eclipse expert David Herald mentioned in a recent Solar Eclipse Message List (SEML) posting:

The ‘traditional’ way as used in the Astronomical Almanac is attributed to Chauvenet – where the umbral radius is increased by a simple 2% – with the radius being based on the Earth’s radius at 45 deg latitude (and otherwise the oblateness of the Earth is ignored). For this eclipse the Chauvenet magnitude was 1.005.

 The second way (used in the French Almanac, and more recently by Espenak & Meeus in their ‘Five Millennium Canon of Lunar Eclipses’ is the Danjon method. It similarly uses the Earth’s radius at 45 deg (and otherwise the oblateness is ignored), and increases the Earth’s radius by 75km. For this eclipse the Danjon magnitude is 1.001

The most recent approach (Herald & Sinnott JBAA 124-5 pgs 247-253, 2014) is based on the Danjon approach; however it treats the Earth as oblate, allows for the varying inclination of the Earth relative to the Sun during the year, and increases the Earth’s radius by 87km – being the best fit to 22,539 observations made between 1842 and 2011. For this eclipse the magnitude is computed as 1.002.

“As for eclipses, to me it is total when sliver of light comes through the edge of the Earth’s profile,” eclipse chaser Patrick Poitevin told Universe Today. “Once a minimum of light passes through any of the lunar dales (as it does during a total solar eclipse) I do not concede it as a total. Same for a lunar eclipse.”

A partial phase for the April 4th lunar eclipse above a silo. Image credit and copyright: Brian who is called Brian
A partial phase for the April 4th lunar eclipse above a silo. Image credit and copyright: Brian who is called Brian

Michael Zeiler at the Great American Eclipse also had this to say to Universe Today about the subject:

This is a complex question because the shape of the Earth’s umbra upon the Moon is diffuse due to the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. The various models used (with corrected radii for the Earth) are empirically based on crater timings of past lunar eclipses, of which there is some uncertainty. I’m sure this accounted for the difference between the USNO duration of eclipse and NASA.

The comment (in the recent Sky & Telescope post online) by Curt Renz is valid; correcting for the Earth’s flattening (meaning that the Earth’s radius from pole to pole is about a third of a percent shorter than the radius across the equator) might influence whether this very low magnitude eclipse is total or not. I haven’t made the calculation whether the Earth’s flattening tips this eclipse from total to partial, but it’s plausible.

Totality! Image credit and copyright: Rolf Wahl Olsen
Totality! Image credit and copyright: Rolf Wahl Olsen

 There is another wrinkle: due to parallactic shifts of the Moon when observing from either pole of the Earth, it might be that for a lunar eclipse right on the knife edge of total/partial, that it may indeed be total from one polar region and partial from another. This is a kind of libration, but it would be a very subtle difference and probably unobservable. 

 It is only possible to conclusively define Saturday’s eclipse as total or partial if you define a brightness threshold for the Sun’s photosphere illuminating an edge of the Moon. The problem here is that this line is indistinct and fuzzy. I watched the lunar eclipse carefully with this question in mind and I could not decide for myself whether this lunar eclipse was total or partial. I think it would require a photometer to make this distinction.

 Certainly, there’s little record of just how the 102 second long lunar eclipse of 1529 appeared. Ironically, it too was a total eclipse near sunrise as seen from Europe. On the other side of the coin, the deep partial eclipse of August 26th, 1961 just missed totality at 98.6% obscuration… and the two lunar eclipses in 2021 have similar circumstances, with a barely total lunar eclipse just 15 minutes long on May 26th and a 97.4% partial lunar eclipse on November 19th.

The circumstances for the 1529 total solar eclipse. Image credit: F.Espenak/NASA/GSFC
The circumstances for the 1529 total solar eclipse. Image credit: F.Espenak/NASA/GSFC

So maybe we won’t have to wait until 2155 to see another brief lunar eclipse that blurs the lines and refuses to play by the rules.

The eclipse as seen from Coral Towers Observatory. Image credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe
The eclipse as seen from Coral Towers Observatory. Image credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe

What do you, the readers think? What did you see last Saturday morn, a bright total lunar eclipse, or a deep partial?

Predicting Eclipses: How Does the Saros Cycle Work?

Boy, how about that total solar eclipse last Friday? And there’s more in store, as most of North America will be treated to yet another total lunar eclipse on the morning of April 4th. This eclipse is member three of four of a quartet of lunar eclipses, known as a tetrad.

Solar and lunar eclipses are predictable, and serve as a dramatic reminder of the clockwork nature of the universe. Many will marvel at the ‘perfect symmetry’ of eclipses as seen from the Earth, though the true picture is much more complex. Yes, the Sun is roughly 400 times larger in diameter than the Moon, but also about 400 times farther away. This distance isn’t always constant, however, as the orbits of both the Earth and Moon are elliptical. And to complicate matters, the Moon is currently moving 3 to 4 centimetres farther away from the Earth per year. Already, annular eclipses are more common in the current epoch than are total solar eclipses, and about 1.4 billion years from now, total solar eclipses will cease to happen entirely.

This has an impact on lunar eclipses as well. The dark inner umbra of the Earth is an average of about 1.25 degrees across at the distance from Earth to the Moon. The Moon’s orbit is inclined 5.1 degrees relative to the ecliptic plane, which traces out the Earth’s path around the Sun.  If this inclination was equal to zero, we’d be treated to two eclipses — one solar and one lunar — every 29.5 day synodic month.

This inclination assures that we have, on average, two eclipse seasons year, and that eclipses occur in groupings of 2-3.  The maximum number of eclipses that can occur in a calendar year is 7, which next occurs in 2038, and the minimum is 4, as occurs in 2015.

A solar eclipse occurs at New Moon, and a lunar eclipse always occurs at Full — a fact that many works of film and fiction famously get wrong. And while you have to happen to be in the narrow path of a solar eclipse to witness totality, the whole Moonward facing hemisphere of the Earth gets to witness a lunar eclipse. Ancient cultures recognized the mathematical vagaries of the lunar and solar cycles as they attempted to reconcile early calendars. Our modern Gregorian calendar strikes a balance between the solar mean and tropical year. The Muslim calendar uses strictly lunar periods, and thus falls 11 days short of a 365 day year. The Jewish and Chinese calendars incorporate a hybrid luni-solar system, assuring that an intercalculary ‘leap month’ needs to be added every few years.

But trace out the solar and lunar cycles far enough, and something neat happens. Meton of Athens discovered in the 5th century BC that 235 synodic periods very nearly equals 19 solar years to within a few hours. This means that the phases of the Moon ‘sync up’ every 19-year Metonic cycle, handy if you’re say, trying to calculate the future dates for a movable feast such as Easter, which falls on (deep breath) the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the March equinox.

A unique ‘moondial’ in front of the Flandrau observatory on the University of Arizona Tucson campus. Image credit: David Dickinson

But there’s more. Take a period of 223 synodic months, and they sync up three key lunar cycles which are crucial to predicting eclipses;

Synodic month- The time it takes for the Moon to return to like phase (29.5 days).

Anomalistic month- The time it takes for the Moon to return to perigee (27.6 days).

Draconic month- the time it takes for the Moon to return to a similar intersecting node (ascending or descending) along the ecliptic (27.2 days).

That last one is crucial, as eclipses always occur when the Moon is near a node. For example, the Moon crosses ascending node less than six hours prior to the start of the April 4th lunar eclipse.

The evolution of a solar saros. Image credit: A.T. Sinclair/NASA/GSFC/Wikimedia Commons

And thus, the saros was born. A saros period is just eight hours shy of 18 years and 11 days, which in turn is equal to 223 synodic, 242 anomalistic or 239 draconic months.

The name saros was first described by Edmond Halley in 1691, who took it from a translation of an 11th century Byzantine dictionary. The plural of saros is saroses.

This also means that solar and lunar eclipses one saros period apart share nearly the same geometry, shifted 120 degrees in longitude westward. For example, the April 4th lunar eclipse is member number 30 in a cycle of 71 lunar eclipses belonging to saros series 132. A similar eclipse occurred one saros ago on March 24th, 1997. Stick around until April 14th, 2033 and you’ll complete a personal triple saros of eclipses, known as an exeligmos.

A tale of three eclipses spanning 1997-2033 from lunar saros 132. Credit: Fred Espenak/NASA/GSFC

Dozens of saros series — both solar and lunar — are underway at any particular time.

But there’s something else unique about April’s eclipse. Though saros 132 started with a slim shallow penumbral eclipse way back on May 12th, 1492, this upcoming eclipse features the very first total lunar eclipse of the series. You can tell, as the duration of totality is a short 4 minutes and 43 seconds, a far cry from the maximum duration of 107 minutes that can occur during a central eclipse.

Created by author.
The evolution of lunar saros 132, showing five key eclipses out of the 71 in the series. Created by author

This particular saros cycle of eclipses will continue to become more central as time goes on. The final total lunar eclipse of the series occurs on August 2nd, 2213 AD, and the saros finally ends way out on June 26th, 2754.

Eclipses, both lunar and solar, have also made their way into the annuals of history. A rising partial eclipse greeted the defenders of Constantinople in 1453, fulfilling a prophecy in the mind of the superstitious when the city fell to the Ottoman Turks seven days later. And you’d think we’d know better by now, but modern day fears of the ‘Blood Moon‘ seen during an eclipse still swirl around the internet even today. Lunar eclipses even helped mariners get a onetime fix on longitude at sea: Christopher Columbus and Captain James Cook both employed this method.

The rising partial eclipse as seen from Constantinople on May 22nd 1453. Image credit: Stellarium

All thoughts to ponder as you watch the April 4th total lunar eclipse. This eclipse will be visible for observers across the Pacific, the Asian Far East, Australia and western North America, after which you’ll have one more shot at total lunar eclipse in 2015 on September 28th. The next total lunar eclipse after that won’t be until January 31st 2018, favoring North America.

Welcome to the saros!

Read Dave Dickinson’s eclipse-fueled sci-fi tales Exeligmos and Shadowfall.