Space fans are getting ready to view the beauty that is a full lunar eclipse, visible in the Western Hemisphere in the wee hours between April 14th and 15th. This full eclipse will mark the beginning of an astronomical rarity; a tetrad of lunar eclipses, one every 6 months for the next two years.
Though the promise of four lunar eclipses in the next two years – an event that hasn’t happened since 2003/4 – is exciting all on its own, some feel the need to add another layer of excitement by claiming the tetrad is actually a sign of a coming apocalypse.
What could be causing all this fear-mongering, which has spawned internet chatter and even a book on the subject? The lunar eclipses will fall on days when there is a blood moon. The term, seldom used by scientists, is one born of ancient superstitions. When the moon is full following a harvest moon, usually in the autumn, it will rise slowly. Scientists refer to this as a hunter’s moon. As the moon rises through thick layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, it is colored red by Rayleigh scattering. The effect, a full red moon, has caused superstitious panic for thousands of years, but now with the causes well understood by science it is surprising that there are those who still see the event as something to fear.
North American sky-watchers who are not frightened by the redness of the moon will be in for a treat as the tetrad of eclipses should be visible for most of the continent.
For those planning to stay up all night or get up very early to view the eclipse on April 14/15, it will “officially” begin at 12:53 am (EDT) in the western hemisphere, when the moon enters Earth’s outer shadow. Despite the “official” start time, watchers won’t see much until about 50 minutes later when a slight shadow will appear along the upper left of the full moon. Around 1:58 am (EDT), the Earth’s dark shadow, or umbra, will edge its way across the face of the moon.
The eclipse should reach totality around 3:06 am (EDT), but light bent around the atmosphere of Earth will give the moon an unique coppery glow. Totality will end at 4:24 am (EDT) as the moon moves out of Earth’s shadow. The entire 78 minute display will be visible from all of North and South America, weather permitting of course. An estimated 922 million people will have a chance to view the eclipse in its entirety.
If you can’t drag yourself out of bed or manage to stay up all night you’re in luck. The second of the tetrad will occur October 8th and be visible from much of North America, though the moon will set before east coasters get a chance to view totality. April 4, 2015 and Sept. 28, 2015 mark the final two full lunar eclipses. All four eclipses should be viewable to most of North America, giving US sky-watchers the edge on lunar eclipse viewing.
“The most unique thing about the 2014-2015 tetrad is that all of them are visible for all or parts of the USA,” long time NASA eclipse expert Fred Espenak told Space.
While the lunar eclipse tetrad isn’t terribly rare, nor will it be the harbinger of the apocalypse, it is an opportunity for both lovers of space and newcomers to witness and appreciate the clockwork movement of our planet and moon in space. While the movement of our solar system is well known, watching our shadow move across the surface of the moon makes that motion all the more real.
For those who have little experience with lunar eclipses, it might be good to know that unlike solar eclipses, the light being reflected off the moon poses no threat and the eclipse can be viewed with the naked eye.
For more on how eclipses work check out Space@NASA’s detailed video.
Will you be checking out the first lunar eclipse in a few days?