Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Total Eclipse of the Moon tomorrow

Picture of a total eclipse of the moon in August 2007
Image Credit: Sky & Telescope and Sean Walker

During the night of February 20, the Moon will pass into Earth's shadow, causing a total eclipse of the moon visible from the entire nighttime face of the Earth. Everyone in North and South America (except Hawaii) will be able to see the eclipse on Wednesday night, while people in Europe and Africa can see the eclipse Thursday morning.

This total lunar eclipse is the third in a year, and the last total lunar eclipse until December 2010. So, if you have clear skies, go out and enjoy the view!

Totality, or the period of time when the moon is completely within Earth's shadow, begins at 10:00pm Eastern Standard Time (7:00pm Pacific) and lasts for just over 50 minutes. During this time, the moon won't completely disappear, but will be a reddish color, as the lunar surface gets to view every sunset and sunrise on the Earth all at once! This eclipse could have some fairly bright copper colors as well, because the moon doesn't go that far into Earth's shadow.

For about 2 hours on either side of totality, you can see the moon in partial eclipse, when part of the moon will be in Earth's shadow. Earth's shadow will have a noticeable curve to it. It is this curvature that proved to the ancient Greek astronomers that the Earth was round and not flat, because it didn't matter when they could see the eclipse -- the shadow was always round. You can imagine that, if the Earth were shaped like a Frisbee, sometimes the shadow would be round, and sometimes it would be long and thin, depending on exactly how the Frisbee was oriented with respect to the sun.

The great thing about lunar eclipses is that you don't need any special equipment to see them. You don't need telescopes, or binoculars, or even a very dark sky. You just need a clear view of the sky in the direction of the moon! So, again, go out and look at tomorrow's eclipse. Enjoy the colors and the shapes of Earth's shadow, absolutely free of charge to anyone who wants to see.

For more details of the eclipse, you can read articles at Sky & Telescope or from NASA's Eclipse Page.

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