Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


First Lunar Eclipse in 2.5 years!

David H. Levy

If the sky is clear early Tuesday morning December 21st beginning just before midnight (and the forecast expects it to be at least partially so) there will be a beautiful total eclipse of the Moon, the first in 2 ½ years.  It will be my 79th eclipse, which includes all total solar and lunar eclipses, even the shallow penumbral lunar eclipses.   It will be an event that brings me back to the great lunar eclipse of December 30, 1963 (my 4th eclipse) which is something I will never forget.

The sky over Montreal that night was clear and extremely cold, the temperature well below zero Fahrenheit.  As the Moon entered the shadow of the Earth that night, it seemed to go through its waning phase very quickly.  Then totality began.  I fully expected to see the Moon as a dull red object hanging in the sky.  It just wasn’t there, neither red, nor brown — it just vanished!  A close friend had driven out into the country outside of Montreal, and reported that he saw the Moon through binoculars, as a 5th magnitude object.  The extreme darkness of this eclipse was later explained by the dust in our atmosphere that had emanated from the eruption of the Mount Agung volcano in Bali, Indonesia 9 months earlier.  Apparently the dust ejected into the stratosphere was still blocking enough light to darken the Earth’s great shadow.

The stratosphere is a lot cleaner now, so we do not expect Monday’s eclipse to be that dark.  The Moon will be high in the sky, near Messier 35 in the constellation of Gemini.  There should be several times during the totals phase when the Moon occults stars in Gemini; it’ll be fun to observe these events.

For me, the main thrill of a lunar eclipse is that it does not show the sky as a static place, but one that is happening.  The heavens are dynamic.  An eclipse also shows that whatever our problems are here on Earth, they are all reduced to a dull colorless line in space, as Thomas Hardy suggested after the English eclipse of 1903. His poem really gives us something to think about when we venture outdoors to see the great eclipse of 2010.

Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along upon the Moon’s meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.

How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?

About The Author

David H. Levy

David H. Levy is author of David Levy's Guide to Eclipses, Transits, and Occultations (2010). He is also President of the National Sharing the Sky Foundation, and is one of the mos...

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