It’s the chilly winter solstice and the eclipse of the moon happened in the wee hours of this morning, so plenty of people probably didn’t sacrifice sleep and stand out in the cold to watch the sky show. No worries—those who did stay up took pictures.
This eclipse was visible across much of Europe, the Americas and parts of Asia. And it was more unusual than most because it coincided with the winter solstice and today’s official start of winter. [NPR]
Such an astronomical alignment hasn’t happened in centuries, and most people alive today won’t be around for the next one: It doesn’t happen again until 2094. Those who braved the cold and had clear viewing skies got to enjoy hours of the eclipse, as the Earth’s shadow began to fall on our natural satellite during the 1 a.m. hour Eastern time.
The total eclipse began about 2:40 a.m. and lasted 72 minutes, until 3:52 a.m. The moon then continued moving through the Earth’s shadow, emerging completely sometime after 5 a.m. The winter solstice, which occurs later in the day, is the time when the sun reaches its lowest point in the northern sky. The Naval Observatory said this year’s solstice will be at 6:38 p.m. [Washington Post]
But why is the moon bathed in blood red light?
A week ago, sky-watchers were bundling up to take in the Geminid meteor shower. But tonight, there’s an even more powerful show coming to the sky. In North America, a total eclipse of the moon begins at about 1:30 a.m. Eastern (Tuesday morning).
Lunar eclipses are cool, but slow. They’re not like solar eclipses which last a few minutes at most; the shadow of the Earth is quite large, and it takes the Moon a while to move through it (also unlike a solar eclipse, lunar eclipses are perfectly safe to watch with your eyes, with binoculars, or through a telescope without protection). Not only that, there are two parts to the shadow: the outer penumbra, which is very difficult to see when it falls on the Moon, and the much darker umbra, which is what really casts the Moon into the dark. In other words, things really gets started when the Moon moves into the umbra.
If it’s cloudy where you are, or you’re on the wrong side of the planet, never fear: you can still get a look because NASA is hosting a live chat and video feed of the eclipse! JPL has set up a Flickr page for people to post their pictures of the eclipse, too. If you Americans miss this eclipse, you’ll have to wait over three years before the next one, which occurs on April 14, 2014.
For more details, check out the rest of Phil’s post at Bad Astronomy.
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Image: Anthony Ayiomamitis
This solar eclipse happens only once every 27 years, and John Monnier was there to see it.
Epsilon Aurigae is a star system about 2,000 light years from Earth. Astronomers have been able to see it for nearly two centuries, and noticed that it dims every 27 years or so. It made sense to assume that they were dealing with a binary star system, with a larger primary star and a smaller secondary star circling around the first. But that didn’t answer all their questions. Why, for instance, did the primary star normally appear dimmer than it should? And if there is a smaller star orbiting the main star, why can’t we see it? To explain that, astronomers developed the unlikely theory that a thick disk of dust was orbiting the smaller star in the same plane as the smaller star’s orbit of the larger star [UPI].
On April 16, 1178 B.C. a total eclipse blotted out the sun at high noon; astronomers know that much for certain. The other events of that day are considerably less definite, but researchers say the date may also figure large in Homer’s Odyssey, the epic tale of Odysseus’s journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Using astronomical clues from the text, researchers say that Homer may have indicated that the day of the eclipse was also the day that Odysseus finally reached home–arriving just in time to slaughter his wife’s persistent suitors.
While the researchers believe they’ve arrived at the proper date for Odysseus’s homecoming in the Odyssey, they don’t claim to have proven that all the events in the epic are real; it is, after all, packed with gods, monsters, and magic. But researcher Marcelo Magnasco says his findings could at least demonstrate Homer’s astronomical erudition. “Under the assumption that our work turns out to be correct, it adds to the evidence that he knew what he was talking about,” Magnasco said. “It still does not prove the historicity of the return of Odysseus,” he said. “It only proves that Homer knew about certain astronomical phenomena that happened much before his time” [AP].