When a lunar eclipse is so much more

By Thomas Webber
Posted 1/16/19

Fact Box

Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse Times for Northeast Florida

Eclipse Begins 9:36 p.m. January 20

Partial Eclipse begins10:33 p.m. January 20

Total Eclipse Begins11:41 p.m. January …

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When a lunar eclipse is so much more

Posted

My goodness, there have been a lot of scary words floating around regarding the January sky. They often refer to things like “Blood Moon” and “Wolf Eclipse” and various combinations therein.

Very ominous-sounding indeed, striking terror into the hearts of the populace. But, much like other super heroes, I am here to save the day and help sort through all the hype. Just call me, “Super Captain Sci-Guy Man!”

Da-da-da-DA!

Let’s work through this backwards.

The term “eclipse,” in a very general sense, simply means to block something. For example, when my wife, the Dynamic Ms. Desiree, feels that I have not done my share around the house, she will step between me and the TV and proceed to tell me about it in no uncertain terms. She has eclipsed the TV from my point-of-view.

I have a small TV.

In science, eclipse tends to refer to the obscuring of a light source by another object. Here on Earth, we often refer to solar and lunar eclipses, and each is due to an elegant waltz among three celestial orbs.

During a solar eclipse, the new Moon passes between the Sun and Earth. To us terrestrials, part or all of the Sun becomes blocked by the disk of the Moon.

For a lunar eclipse, however, Earth itself is blocking sunlight, and the full-Moon passes through Earth’s shadow cone in space. Note, however, that an astronaut on the Moon, would describe the same phenomenon as being a solar eclipse, as she would see the disk of Earth block out part or all of the Sun.

In both scenarios, the three bodies involved – the Sun, the Moon, and Earth – are in a straight line. Solar and lunar eclipses occur two weeks of each other, and we can have 2-3 eclipse seasons, as they are called, per year.

But – hark! – the Super Captain Sci-Guy Man signal has been activated! People are asking, “Wait, if we have a new Moon and a full Moon every month, why aren’t there eclipses every month.”

An outstanding question, dear citizens. To answer it, we must think three-dimensionally. The orbit of the Moon around Earth is tilted about 5 degrees with respect to the Earth-Sun plane. As a result, most months the Moon is simply above or below this plane for an eclipse to happen.

In other words, the conditions for an eclipse require the new or full Moon to be at the intersection of the Sun-Earth plane and the Earth-Moon plane.

There are five eclipses in 2019, three solar and two lunar. However, of these five, only one will be visible from Northeast Florida: A total lunar eclipse on the night of January 20/21. It is being called the “Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse.” Spooky! Let’s continue working through this.

The word “super” comes from the fact that when the Moon is in its full phase this month it is also near its perigee; that is, the point in its elliptical orbit that puts it closest to Earth. This means the Moon will appear a little bit larger in the sky, but it is not really noticeable to the naked eye.

“Wolf Moon” is the name typically given to any January full Moon. Its origin lies in the fact that many ancient cultures used the positions of the Moon and stars to establish calendars and track the seasons. From this tradition came the practice of giving each full Moon within a year its own name, often based on animal behavior, plant life and the weather.

It is thought that Colonial Americans adopted Native American names for various full Moons. Since wolves tend to howl at night, and the nights are long in January…voila – we have the Wolf Moon.

The Wolf Moon is also called the Yule Moon (or Moon after Yule) in some parts of the world.

Finally, during a total lunar eclipse, the Moon passes completely through the center of Earth’s shadow cone. This does not mean, however, that the Moon becomes dark and disappears. Rather, because our atmosphere refracts red light into the shadow, the Moon turns a coppery-red color. This reddish hue associates total lunar eclipses with the word “blood.”

So, there you have it. And even though “Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse” sounds frightening, it is a simple astronomical event due to a geometric alignment. It is not a portent of doom or a natural disaster.

No special equipment or eye protection is necessary to enjoy a lunar eclipse. And since the next total lunar eclipse visible from Florida does not happen until May 26, 2021, it is not an event to be missed.

Now the bad news: I’m afraid you are going to have to be a bit of a night owl. The eclipse starts at 9:36 p.m., with totality not beginning until 11:41 p.m. and the maximum eclipse taking place at 12:12 a.m. The show is over at 2:48 a.m. But, the good news is that we get to experience the entire eclipse from start to finish.

The exact times are provided in the accompanying box.

The study and wonder of the cosmos are disappearing as our cities grow and our interests turn toward the artificial rather than the natural. So, this event, which is both awe-inspiring and breathtaking to witness, can help link us back to the splendor of a starlight night. It is worth a few hours of missed sleep to experience it in person.

Thomas Webber teaches AP Physics at Clay County’s Oakleaf High and worked in the planetarium field for nearly 20 years, including at MOSH, and has also taught physics and astronomy at both the secondary and collegiate levels.

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