Lunar Eclipse: January 2019

By Tyler St. Clair

Late Sunday night, I found myself standing out in the middle of my yard wrapped up in multiple layers, jacket zipped all the way up, hood covering my head. The temperature was in the low teens, and with the wind chill, it probably felt closer to zero, but there I was. Standing out there freezing my butt off, staring up at the sky looking for one thing: the lunar eclipse.

Lunar eclipses aren’t as rare as you may think, approximately three occur every year. Earth’s shadow has two parts: the umbra and the penumbra. The penumbra is the outer part of the shadow while the umbra is the inner, darker part of the shadow. A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through the one (or both) parts of the Earth’s shadow. When the moon crosses through the penumbra only a partial eclipse occurs, and when it crosses through the umbra, a total eclipse occurs.

This lunar eclipse came in the rarest form of an eclipse: a total eclipse. During a total eclipse, from a big picture, the moon passes first through the penumbra and then reaches the umbra where it stays for about 15-30 minutes and then the moon starts moving out of the umbra and back into the penumbra until it finally moves outside of the Earth’s shadow altogether.

On Earth, the lunar eclipse is a little bit more interesting than the scientific explanation of it. On Earth, when you look up into the sky as it occurs, you can start to see a shadow cover up a small part of the moon, and the moon beings to shrink and look as though it is in its crescent phase. As the moon enters the umbra, the eclipse enters “totality.” Totality is when the moon is fully in the darkest part of the shadow and can only occur when the sun, Earth, and moon all line up perfectly. When the moon enters totality, the moon usually goes very dark, almost invisible. But this lunar eclipse was special; when the moon entered totality, it turned a very rich red color. The red color comes from the light being refracted around the Earth and passing through the Earth’s atmosphere, turning it a red color.

Lunar eclipses and solar eclipses occur about at the same frequency, about three times a year. Total solar eclipses are however a little rarer than lunar eclipses. Lunar eclipses are easier to observe and take pictures of. While solar eclipses require special glasses and special lenses on your camera, lunar eclipses require no special equipment; just go outside and look up at the sky (unless it’s freezing cold, then you may want to have a jacket or two).

The most recent total solar eclipse was in August of 2017. The next total solar eclipse won’t be visible to the United States until 2024. Having two total eclipses visible from the United States within a little over a year is an amazing happening, and I feel privileged to have witnessed both of them first hand.

The line up of the sun, Earth, and moon determine the amount of coverage will be seen on the moon during an eclipse. Every time we see a total lunar eclipse, the sun, Earth, and moon are usually in line in order to show another total eclipse for the next three eclipses, and then we see around three partial eclipses and it continues in this cycle.

There were two lunar eclipses last year in 2018: one in January and one in July; both were total eclipses. And with this most recent eclipse also being a total eclipse, that means that the next total lunar eclipse will not occur and be visible until May of 2021; the next one visible from the United States won’t occur until 2022. Between now and then there will be an estimated five lunar eclipses, the next one occurring in July of this year.

When asked about the lunar eclipse, a fellow moon watcher, Ian DeHaven said “It kind of reminded me of humanity’s place in the world from the viewpoint that despite the fact we predicted this with accuracy to the day, hard science can never explain the perspective-setting feeling of looking at the red moon. We know why things happen but are still powerless to them.”

Standing out in the freezing cold might not have been the best way to view this event that isn’t all that rare, but in the end, it was a beautiful event of nature that I am excited to say that I witnessed firsthand. Along with seeing my first shooting star, seeing my first lunar eclipse was cold but successful.