Tales From Totality: Standing in the Shadow of the Moon

A brilliant diamond ring punctuates totality. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad.

They came, they saw, they battled clouds, traffic and strange charger adapters in a strange land. Yesterday, millions stood in awe as the shadow of the Moon rolled over the contiguous United States for the first time in a century. If you’re like us, your social media feed is now brimming with amazing images of yesterday’s total solar eclipse.

Already, we’ve seen some amazing reader images at Universe Today, with more to come. As a special look at a unique event, we’ve collected reader testimonies from every state along the path of totality of just what the eclipse was like.

Enjoy!

Oregon- Shahrin Ahmad (@Shahgazer)

We drove from Dalles at 3 AM. Nearing the observation spot, we got a flat tire! It was 5:30 AM, and no phone line! I sent a text to the land owner and somehow it reached him and we managed to be there by 6:30 AM. We observed from a secluded spot about 30 miles from Madras, with a 2 minutes and 2 seconds of totality. The sky was really clear during sunrise, but as totality approached we got some thin clouds hovering in the east. Luckily, it was thin enough to not spoil anything. The corona was incredibly beautiful with longer (streamers) jutting out at the 4 and 8 o’clock position. The first and second diamond ring were spectacular with the eye, probably with the help with the thin clouds. We calculated about 7 degree drop in temperature. The shadow was enormous, engulfing Mt Hood from the west and flew past above us towards and towards the Sun. Mesmerizing! 2 minutes simply was not enough, since this is probably my best view of a total solar eclipse so far!

The bright star Regulus, tangled up in the solar corona. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad.

(Note: to our knowledge, no one witnessed the brief moments of totality as the umbra of the Moon brushed tiny corners of Montana and Iowa… if you’re reading this and did so, let us know!)

Idaho- Bruce McCurdy (@BruceMcCurdy)

How to describe such a magnificent spectacle in a “brief paragraph”? Our group from Edmonton observed totality under clear skies near Birch Creek, Idaho. After the Moon’s silhouette inexorably progressed & gradually swallowed up an impressive line of sunspots, the pace of dynamic events picked up dramatically in the minutes surrounding totality. The temperature dropped noticeably. Light faded & became “flat” while shadows became better defined & lost their fuzzy edges (penumbrae). The Moon’s onrushing shadow became visible on the mountains to our west, while rapidly-moving shadow bands squiggled on the ground around us. The sky took on an eerie indigo hue as the last vestiges of direct sunlight were obscured. A new & temporary centrepiece emerged in the sky: the black circle of the lunar night side highlighted by a spectacular corona, its far-flung pearly-white streamers contained within sharply defined edges. Around the black limb fiery coral pink prominences added intense colour highlights to the scene. Just beyond the corona gleamed Regulus, closer to the Sun than is possible for any other star of first magnitude or brighter, while off to one side Venus shone brilliantly, far higher in the sky than its customary window of dominance in normal twilight. All too soon the right edge of the lunar silhouette brightened, then blossomed in a brilliant diamond ring that continued to intensify for a couple of glorious seconds until filters again became a must. By now the mountains to our east were in darkness as the umbral shadow receded from our immediate location, leaving a number of our small party in tears from the intensity of the experience.

Wyoming- Kelly Kizer Whitt (@Astronomommy)

We woke up in the Tetons Monday morning to a sky streaked with clouds. But the hourly weather report showed clearing, so we headed to our spot before 7 AM. We were able to secure parking by our preferred observing location, the Mormon Barn with a view of the iconic Teton range in the background. Looking east, we saw the clouds slink away to the south until skies were blue and clear, despite lingering haze and smoke on the northern horizon from wildfires.

Crescent Suns along with the Tetons. image credit and copyright: Kelly Kizer Whitt.

Having been a science writer for two decades, I was well versed on total solar eclipses even though I’d never seen one first hand. But it didn’t unfold quite as I expected. The sky and air didn’t take on a twilight quality until the Sun was well over halfway obscured. Then when darkness fell, it came fast and the temperature dropped hard. We had on our eclipse glasses and were staring at the Sun, waiting to see bailey’s beads or the diamond ring. But first I glanced down and saw the slithering, wiggling lines of darkness and light known as the shadow bands. They have a truly creepy quality as they dance in the growing dark. Then we looked back up as the sliver of orange disappeared and the Sun winked out from our glasses. Pulling them off, my family let out cries of surprise when they saw the black hole where the Sun had been, surrounded by the long, wispy, intricate corona. The eclipsed Sun and corona took up a much larger space in the sky than I expected, but the photo I took (just like when photographing a full moon) does not give a true representation of what you can see with your eyes.

I only took three photos because I wanted to just enjoy the view. I almost forgot to look for the stars. We saw a plane, Venus, and Sirius. Our eyes never adjusted enough to spot Jupiter or the others and the rosy glow of a false twilight brightened all horizons in a 360-degree ring. So soon it was over. The bailey’s beads and diamond ring we missed as the total eclipse began, and appeared to us instead at the end. These phenomena were a bright and beautiful warning to get our eclipse glasses back on. The world returned to daylight fairly quickly, but the drop in temperature lingered a bit longer. Our memories will last a lifetime.

Nebraska- (@BigBadEd)

Having doubtful cloud forecasts for Scottsbluff & Carhenge,  we met on a foggy morning in Sidney, Nebraska with thoughts of changing plans to Wyoming for clear skies. As the forecast improved,  15 of us set off for Carhenge.  We arrived before 7 AM to plentiful parking & a few hundred people. Towards 9 AM the crowds started to swell, including aliens, welders and the governor of Nebraska. Joined by more people & dogs, I estimate around 3,000 people were at the site. Some clouds went by at mid-coverage, casting a spectacular crescent. Clouds cleared, and cheers rose as we went into totality,  such a beautiful sight some were moved to tears as the diamond ring emerged. A thoroughly wonderful experience shared with friends and spellbound crowd, definitely worth the trip from Florida.

Kansas- Michelle Tevis (@MichelleKTevis)

I saw it (the eclipse) from Weston, Missouri, just northwest of the Kansas-Missouri line. Clouds and rain obscured the sun for most of the eclipse, but the rain subsided during totality and allowed us to get outside for the quick move into darkness. Even though we couldn’t see the eclipse or corona, the atmosphere took on a different feel. There was a change in how things were colored — as if you were looking through darker and darker polarized glasses, and the silence took on a feeling, like a deep vibration.

Missouri- Jeudy Blanco (@Jeudyx)

Totality from Missouri. Image credit and copyright: Jeudy Blanco.

It was amazing. We changed plans last night, instead of going to St Joseph we drove to Columbia. I was really worried the first few minutes of the eclipse because it was cloudy, my PST couldn’t resolve the image of the Sun! But quickly the clouds dispersed. We were on a property from the family of my friend, around 25 people of all ages. When it was around 70% (partial) you could feel in the environment that something was going on. Everything got a lot more quiet and the temperature dropped. Everybody was trying to get pictures of the Sun with their phones on the PST. Then totality started, it was indescribable for me. I was seeing the Sun’s corona with my bare eyes. I was really nervous and anxious, actually. We could see Venus near the Sun. Everybody was super excited, I almost cried. The experience was amazing, a total success, the long trip was worth it.

Illinois- The Universe Today expedition to the Prairie State led by Publisher Fraser Cain also managed to catch a brief glimpse of totality through a gap in the clouds:

Kentucky- Mike Weasner (@Mweasner)

Earthshine (!) on the Moon, seen during totality. Image credit and copyright: Mike Weasner.

About 400 eclipse enthusiasts from around the world including me were part of a Sky and Telescope tour group. We were at Hopkinsville Community College located in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where totality lasted 2 minutes and 40 seconds, which was too short. We arrived at the viewing site about 4.5 hours before First Contact. Traffic was surprisingly light. There were a few thin clouds but nothing significant. Anticipation was high. Many of us set up cameras and were ready well before First Contact. First Contact occurred with a clear sky, and the sky stayed mostly clear until about 30 minutes before Second Contact. Then a large cloud covered the Sun. Fortunately the cloud moved on within a couple of minutes and the sky was mostly clear through Fourth Contact. Totality was beautiful. Most people saw Venus, some saw Jupiter too, but no one seems to have seen any stars although it did get dark at the site. Many people in the group left soon after totality ended, but I and several others stayed to view and photograph the eclipse through Fourth Contact. 

Tennessee- (Terry Horne @CapH_1)

My wife and I viewed the event from Sheep Barn Ridge, which is a few miles from Kingston, TN. We began the planning in late 2015 when we realized the shadow path was adjacent to our property near my folks in TN. Our location delivered 2 minutes and 29 seconds of totality, with clear skies, a valley pasture view among new friends, goats, llama, ducks, chickens and a few hounds.

An amazing expample of the “Diamond Ring” effect. Image credit and copyright: Phyllis Horne @sahgma

We experienced every awe & oddity we had studied during the ramp up to the event. My wife did an excellent job with her photo efforts. She balanced her personal viewing time and planned equipment duties well. This was a source of much worry and discussion during the months prior.

I’ll mention a few surprises. I was impressed by the amount of light cast on the landscape with barely a sliver of the Sun remaining. I suspect the ambient sunlight to the south east was the major source. The rapid transition to peak darkness was dramatic.

In contrast, I noticed a clear reduction of heat radiation on my skin with about 50% coverage. It was a hot day. I wished I’d had more time to observe the animals.

I found it somewhat humorous how many folks took all of the important PSA’s about retina damage to heart. Before totality they bowed their heads to the ground when they did not have their gasses on while walking, standing and sitting.

What I learned most was, to the inexperienced, East Tennessee Moonshine travels faster than the Moon’s shadow.

Be careful!

Georgia- Jeannette Iriye (@i_fridrich)

We found a lovely scenic overlook facing west in Sky Valley, just outside Dillard, Georgia. Skies were clear with only minimal cloud cover until about 13:30, when heavy cloud cover began to build in the south/southeast. The clouds obfuscated the remainder of our view of the eclipse directly. It did get much cooler, windy, and the crickets were singing just prior to and during totality.

A partially eclipsed Sun versus clouds. Image credit and copyright: Jeannette Iriye.

South Carolina- Terri (@wizbee1)

We didn’t make it to South Carolina, and had to turn the plane back because of weather. Watched instead from Saint Mary’s Georgia. Did feel the temperature drop and experienced darkening but not in totality.

And us? We watched from the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in North Carolina as the shadow of the Moon draped over the landscape. The rolling afternoon clouds afforded only brief glimpses of the partially eclipsed Sun. Then, just prior to totality, we caught the final moments as the Sun withered to a brief diamond ring flash… and was gone. Magic! Unfortunately, the corona remained hidden behind high clouds for the 107 seconds of darkness, though we were treated to an unworldly 360 degree sunset below the cloud deck. Nocturnal mosquitoes, fooled by the false dusk, began their rounds, as a light “eclipse wind” kicked up.

Author and wife (@MyschaTheriault) standing in the shadow of the Moon, plus our view from the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) just before totality. Thanks to @Dayveesutton for snapping the pic!

Then, it was over. Got the eclipse bug? Well, another total solar eclipse crosses the U.S. in 2024… but you don’t have to wait that long, as we’ve got one coming right up crossing Argentina and Chile on July 2nd, 2019…

I’ll see you there!

Prelude to Totality: A Final Look at the Total Solar Eclipse

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Totality! The view during the November 2012 total solar eclipse. Image credit and copyright: Sharin Ahmad (@Shahgazer)

It’s hard to believe: we’re now just one short weekend away from the big ticket astronomical event for 2017, as a total solar eclipse is set to cross over the contiguous United States on Monday, August 21st.

Celestial mechanics is a sure thing in this Universe, a certainty along with death and taxes that you can bet on. But there are still a few key question marks leading up to eclipse day, things that we can now finally make intelligent assumptions about a few days out.

Although totality slices through the U.S., partial phases of the eclipse touch on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. Credit: Michael Zeiler/The Great American Eclipse.

First up is solar activity. If you’re like us, you’ll be showing off the Sun in both visible and hydrogen alpha as the Moon begins making its slow hour long creep across the disk of Sol. First, the good news: sunspot active region AR 2671 made its Earthward debut on Tuesday August 15th, and will most likely stick around until eclipse day. The bad news is, it most likely won’t have lots of friends, as solar cycle #24 begins its long slow ebb towards the solar minimum in 2019-2020. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect to see any magnificent sprouting red prominences in the solar chromosphere in the seconds bracketing totality, though we could always be pleasantly surprised.

sunspot
The Earthward face of Sol as of August 17, four days before totality. Sunspot AR 2671 is robust and growing in complexity. Credit: NASA/SDO/HMI

How will the white hot corona appear during totality? This is the signature climax of any total solar eclipse: veteran umbraphiles can actually glance at a photo of totality and tell you which eclipse it was from, just on the shape of the corona. The National Solar Observatory released a model of what that Sun’s magnetosphere was doing one Carrington rotation (27 days) prior to the eclipse on July 25th, a pretty good predictor of the corona might look like during those fleeting moments of totality:

Solar Corona
The shape of the field lines of the solar corona, one rotation prior to the August 21st total solar eclipse. Credit: The National Solar Observatory.

NASA will be chasing the umbra of the Moon with two converted W-57 aircraft during the eclipse, hoping to unlock the “coronal heating paradox,” image Mercury in the infrared, and hunt for elusive Vulcanoid asteroids near the eclipsed Sun.

corona
The view of the corona during totality? This computational model was derived from NASA SDO data during the last solar rotation. Credit: Predictive Science Inc.

The corona is about twice as bright as a Full Moon, and its interface with the solar wind extends out past the Earth. The very onset of totality is like the footstep of a giant passing over the landscape, as the door of reality is suddenly ripped open, revealing the span of the glittering solar system at midday. Keep your eyes peeled for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and twinkling Regulus tangled up in the corona, just a degree from the Sun-Moon pair:

The line up of the planets, bright stars and the eclipsed Sun during totality at 2:37 PM EDT as seen from Franklin, North Carolina. Credit: Stellarium.

Also, be sure to scan the local horizon for a strange 360 degree sunset as you stand in the umbra of the Moon. An “eclipse wind” may kick up, as temperatures plummet and nature is fooled by the false dawn, causing chickens to come home to roost and nocturnal animals to awaken. I dare you to blink. Totality can affect the human heart as well, causing tears to cries of surprise.

Here’s an interesting, though remote, possibility. Could a sungrazing “eclipse comet” photo bomb the show? Karl Battams (@SungrazerComets) raises this question on a recent Planetary Society blog post. Battams works with the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), which has discovered an amazing 3,358 comets crossing the field of view of its LASCO imagers since 1995. Comets have been discovered during eclipses before, most notably in 1882 and 1948. To be sure, it’s a remote possibility this late in the game, but Battams promises to give us one last quick look via SOHO the morning of the eclipse on his Twitter feed to see if any cometary interlopers are afoot.

The possible search area for Kreutz group sungrazers during the August 21st eclipse. Credit: Karl Battams.

Now, on to the biggest question mark going into this eclipse weekend: what’s the weather going to be like during the eclipse? This is the ever-dominating factor on everyone’s mind leading up to eclipse day. Keep in mind, the partial phases are long; even a partly cloudy sky will afford occasional glimpses of the Sun during the partial phases of an eclipse. Totality, however, is fleeting – 2 minutes and 40 seconds near Hopkinsville, Kentucky and less for most – meaning even a solitary cumulus cloud drifting across the Sun at the wrong moment can spoil the view. No weather model can predict the view of the sky to that refined a level. And while best bets are still out west, lingering forest fires in Oregon are a concern, along early morning fog on the western side of the Cascade Mountains. Michael Zeiler over at The Great American Eclipse has been providing ESRI models of the cloud cover over the eclipse path for Monday… here’s the outlook as of Thursday, August 17th:

A look at cloud cover prospects over the eclipse path as of August 17. Credit: Michael Zeiler/Great American Eclipse/ESRI.

Computer models should begin to come into agreement this weekend, a good sign that we know what the weather is going to do Monday. Needless to say, a deviation from the standard climate models could send lots of folks scrambling down the path at the last minute… I’ve heard of folks with up to 5 (!) separate reservations along the path of totality, no lie…

The NOAA also has a fine site dedicated to weather and cloud coverage across the path come eclipse day, and Skippy Sky is another great resource aimed at sky viewing and cloud cover.

Clouded out? The good folks at the Virtual Telescope have got you covered, with a webcast for the total solar eclipse starting at 17:00 UT/1:00 PM EDT:

Credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.

Of course, you’ll need to use proper solar viewing methods during all partial phases of the eclipse. This means either using a telescope with a filter specifically designed to look at the Sun, a pin hole projector, or certified ISO 12312-2 eclipse glasses. If you’ve got an extra pair, why not convert them into a safe filter for those binoculars or a small telescope as well:

Also be wary of heatstroke, standing out showing folks the partially eclipsed Sun for an hour or more. It is August, and heat exhaustion can come on in a hurry. Be sure you have access to shade and stay cool and hydrated in the summer Sun.

Finally, eyes from space will be watching the eclipse from the International Space Station as well. Looking out at Monday, the ISS will pass through the penumbra of the Moon and see partial phases of the eclipse three times centered on 16:32, 18:20, and 20:00 Universal Time. The center time is particularly intriguing, as astros have a chance to see the dark umbral shadow of the Moon crossing the central U.S. This also means that eclipse viewers on planet Earth around southern Illinois might want to glance northward briefly, to spy the ISS during totality. Also, viewers along a line along southern central Canada will have a chance to catch an ISS transit across the face of the partially eclipsed Sun around the same time. Check CALSky for details.

Three passes of the International Space Station versus the path of of totality. The inset shows the view of the partially eclipsed Sun as seen from the ISS. Credit: NASA/JSC.

We’ll be at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in southwestern North Carolina, for a glorious 104 seconds of totality. We expect to be out of wifi range come eclipse day, but we’ll tweet out key eclipse milestones as @Astroguyz. We also plan on writing up the eclipse experience with state-by-state testimonials post eclipse.

Perhaps, the August 21st total solar eclipse will bring us all together for one brief moment, to witness the grandest of astronomical spectacles. We’re lucky to share a small patch of time and space where total solar eclipses are possible.  Good luck, clear skies, and see you on the other side early next week!

One. More. Month: Our Guide to the Total Solar Eclipse

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Totality! An incredible moment from the March 29th, 2006 total solar eclipse. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer/Amazing Sky Photography

Have you heard?

I remember, getting into astronomy as a kid back in the 1970s, building a pinhole projector in a shoe box and watching the partial solar eclipse of February 26th, 1979 from our living room in northern Maine. I had no Learjet, no magic carpet to whisk me off to that thin thread of a path of totality way out west along the Pacific coast. As I settled for the 66% partial solar eclipse, I remember news reports stating that a total solar eclipse won’t cross the United States again until… August 21st, 2017.

That date is almost upon us now, only one month from this coming Friday.

An animation of the August 21st eclipse. Credit: NASA/GSFC/AT Sinclair

This total solar eclipse is one for the ages, THE big ticket event for 2017. Umbraphiles (those who chase eclipses) have been planning for this one for decades, and it’s already hard to find a room along the path. Fear not, as you only need to be within striking distance the day of the eclipse to reach totality, though expect the roads to be congested that Monday morn.

The eclipse is indeed the first time totality touches the contiguous (“lower 48”) United States since 1979, and the first total solar eclipse to cross the United States since almost a century ago on June 8th 1918. A total solar eclipse did cross Hawaii on July 11th, 1991.

total solar eclipse
The path of the August 21st eclipse over the U.S. Credit: Michael Zeiler/Eclipse-Maps.

Partial phases for the eclipse begin at 15:47 Universal Time (UT) and span 5 hours and 18 minutes until 21:04 UT. The partial aspect of the eclipse touches all continents except Antarctica and Australia. The 115 kilometer wide shadow of Earth’s moon (known as the umbra) first makes landfall over the Oregon coast at 17:16 UT /10:16 Pacific Daylight Saving time (PDT) and races eastward at 3,900 kilometers per second. The shadow touches 14 states, just briefly nicking Montana and Iowa. Maximum totality of 2 minutes, 40 seconds occurs near Carbondale, Illinois.

Seen a partial solar eclipse before and wonder what the big deal is? You really need to get to the path of totality for the full eclipse experience. Millions live in the path of the August 21st eclipse, and millions more within an easy day drive. We witnessed the May 10th, 1994 annular eclipse from the shores of Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio, and can attest that 1% of the Sun at midday is still pretty darned bright.

A partial eclipse rising over the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Dave Dickinson

Action really gets interesting moments before totality sweeps over the landscape. Be sure to keep an eye out for shadow bands flitting across the ground, an effect notoriously hard to photograph. It’s safe to drop those glasses moments before totality, when you’ll see those final rays of sunlight streaming through the valleys along the limb of the Moon, creating what’s known as Baily’s Beads or the Diamond Ring Effect. You’re now in the realm of the shadow of the Moon, an ethereal shadow world turned on its head. I dare you to blink. Looking sunward, you’ll see the pearly corona of the Sun, a white halo about as bright as a Full Moon spied only during totality.

Think about it: you knew this moment was coming, perhaps you’d been planning for it for years… but would you think as an average citizen thousands or millions of years ago if you were suddenly confronted with such as strange sky?

And all too soon, it’s over.

Be sure to keep an eye out for planets and bright stars during the eclipse. Totality is a late morning affair out west, and an early afternoon event for the US East Coast. All naked eye planets except Saturn are above the horizon during totality, covering a span of about 80 degrees from Jupiter to Venus. Look just one degree from the eclipsed Sun and you might just spy the star Regulus occulted by the Moon shortly after the eclipse.

The orientation of the planets and bright stars during totality. Credit: Stellarium.

Perhaps you’re planning on aiming a battery of cameras skyward during the eclipse, or maybe, you’re simply planning on simply enjoying the moment, then photographing the next one. The Eclipse MegaMovie project is planning on capturing the scene down the eclipse path. NASA will also be flying overhead with converted WB-57F aircraft, looking to capture high definition video in the visible and infrared wavelengths during the eclipse.

Preparing for the eclipse. Credit: Dave Dickinson

You need to take the same safety precautions observing the partial phases of the eclipse as you would during ordinary solar observing. Use only a filtered telescope designed to look at the Sun, or solar eclipse glasses with an ISO 12312-2 rating. Make sure that filter fits snugly over the aperture of the telescope and cannot be removed by curious prying hands or high winds, and that all finder-scopes are removed, stowed and/or covered. Also, don’t try and use one of those old screw-on eyepiece solar filters that came with old department store 60mm refractors, as they can heat up and crack. Likewise, be careful when projecting the Sun through a telescope onto a piece of paper, as it can heat up and damage the optics.

If you don’t think the danger is real, read this amazing recent interview with an optometrist on Space.com, where he states you can actually see the crescent Sun burned into the backs of patient’s eyes who stared too long at a partial solar eclipse (!) It’s a permanent souvenir you don’t want to have. Don’t be like 18th century psychologist Gustav Fechner who blinded himself staring at the Sun, mesmerized by the glare of lingering afterimages.

Seen on the streets of Paducah, Kentucky… a harbinger of things to come? Credit: Dave Dickinson

 

And though we can predict eclipses centuries out, there’s one thing we won’t know eclipse day: what the weather plans on doing. Best bets are for clear skies out west, though you only need a gap in the clouds to see the Sun. We’ll be running a final post on Universe Today just days prior to the eclipse looking at weather prospects, solar activity and prospects for transits of the International Space Station and possible views from space.

The umbra of the Moon on Earth as seen from Mir in 1999. Credit: NASA/Roscosmos.

The second eclipse season for 2017 begins with a partial lunar eclipse favoring on August 7th… we’ve got you covered on that as well. And us? We’ll be watching the event from the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) in Smoky Mountains just outside of Asheville, North Carolina for a glorious 107 seconds of totality.

And after that? Well, totality visits that same living room in northern Maine on April 8th, 2024… I think I know where I’ll be then.

The path of the 2017 and 2024 eclipses. Credit: Michael Zeiler/Eclipse Maps.

A request- observing the eclipse from the path of totality? I’m planning on doing a state-by-state roundup post eclipse, perhaps with a paragraph of personal impressions from each observer. Let us know what your plans are!

-Read more about the August 21st total solar eclipse, plus the true tale of Edison’s Chickens and the 1878 total solar eclipse in out free e-guide to 101 Astronomical Events for 2017.

-Eclipse… fiction? Read our original eclipse-fueled sci-fi tales Exeligmos, Peak Season, Shadowfall and more!

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?