Get Ready for October's Lunar Eclipse

Lunar eclipse - NASA

Photograph of lunar eclipse from April 2014; image courtesy of NASA

Get Ready for October's Lunar Eclipse
| published Sept. 21, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff


A few weeks ago most people living in the Northern Hemisphere were able to witness the so-called Super Moon, the two nights (September 8 and 9) when the moon reached the spot in the sky farthest from the sun—or, more importantly—arrived at a point in which it could reflect the most light back toward Earth. That penultimate moment came at 9:38 p.m. EDT on Monday, September 8 for an event sometimes referred to as Harvest Moon.

In fact, the summer of 2014 was unique in most of our lifetimes for its rare display of three consecutive super-moons—one month apart, in July, in August, and again in September. Indeed, it has been a busy year for astronomers, moon-watchers, and studiers of the night skies.

And though the next traditional “October Harvest Moon” will not occur again until 2017 (this year’s Harvest Moon was in September, and that—plus a variety of other factors too complex to explain here—meant that for most viewers on Earth, there were none of the classic “harvest” colors of orange, red or burnt amber), October still reserves one night for the moon to give residents of planet Earth another dazzling light show. This time it will be a lunar eclipse.

On October 8, exactly one month after the last Super-Moon, millions of Earthlings will be able to look up in the sky and witness a full lunar eclipse. The eclipse will take place shortly before the sun comes up on the East Coast of the United States, but the general effects of the eclipse will be visible—depending, of course, on cloud cover—across most of the U.S.

A lunar eclipse, according to NASA, is the celestial event when “the moon passes deep inside the shadow of our planet, a location that bathes the face of the moon in a coppery light.” In other words, the half of the Earth covered in nighttime darkness will be facing—precisely—at the moon as the Earth passes between the sun and moon.

If you were standing on the surface of the moon looking at the Earth, you would see a brilliant, dazzling sunrise spilling from around the circumference of the Earth. But since you will be here on Earth (we assume!), you will see instead a moon which turns a pale greyish pink, then a coppery orange and red. And depending on where you observe the eclipse, and at what moment, other colors may be visible shifting across the moons pockmarked face.

Even though for the Eastern half of the United States the eclipse will occur just before sunrise, the event will actually occur at moonset, as the moon settles low into the western sky. That means that it you live in a heavily wooded area, you may want to climb atop your roof or garage, or even take the trouble to drive or walk to the nearest clear area where the trees and shrubs are low.

Folks on the West Coast have a better chance to see the eclipse in its totality, but they will need to set their alarm clocks very early. The best viewing in the Pacific Time Zone will be between 3:25 a.m. and 4:34 a.m. Residents of California may be at a disadvantage if the King Fire, or its aftereffects, is still smoldering; heavy smoke and haze from the fires—even weeks after the flames have been extinguished—may reduce visibility in some areas. Conversely, those same hazes may increase the colors of the eclipse in areas around California.

People in many parts of Central and South American will have many of the same viewing opportunities as those along the U.S. east coast, but with the moon slightly higher in the skies of the early morning hours.

This year’s supermoons have attracted millions of people to walk outside and gaze skyward. But the frequency of the supermoons has also spurred a lot of confusion over which moons are “harvest,” which are merely “super,” and which are visible the longest period, visible the shortest period, or the brightest. According to Joe Rao, writing in, some of this confusion is based on media oversimplification.

“Many think that the Harvest Moon remains in the night sky longer than any other full moons we see during the year,” Rao writes, “but that is a myth. The Harvest Moon’s claim to fame is that instead of rising its normal average of 50 minutes later each day, it rises only a little later each night, providing farmers with extra moonlit evenings to reap their crops.”

And thus the name “harvest” moon.

Aside from the Super Moons, Earthlings are in a period of sequential eclipses known as a tetrad—a set of four consecutive eclipses within a relatively short period of time. The last of these will take place in April of next year. And though April’s moon show is expected to be impressive, according to the night sky experts the October 8 lunar eclipse promises to be the most dazzling event of the year.

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