By: Jim Virkler
When public media assign extra hyperbole to celestial events that already possess appeal and fascination, science educators are grateful. Extensive publicity was given to the last two total eclipse events in the last six months. These were unusual closely spaced natural events, worthy of heightened popular interest, attention and explanation. Since summer 2017, Earth residents have experienced two different noteworthy total eclipses—a total solar eclipse visible across the wide areas of the US “lower 48” followed by a total lunar eclipse observable in a majority of the fifty US states. Each event was distinctive in many ways.
To fully enjoy the total solar eclipse careful travel and observational preparations were necessary. The total eclipse was visible in a narrow band only 70 miles wide racing across 14 of the lower 48 US states at a speed of 1691 mph. Estimates of how many people across the US viewed the spectacular totality in person range as high as 20 million. Twelve million residents live in the 70 mile strip. Not all of them observed the event, but several million traveled to the path of totality from a distance.
Observing a total solar eclipse in person is one of the most inspirational natural events imaginable. The occurrence of visible solar totality at any one spot on Earth is incredibly rare. Any single earth location may not be in the narrow path of totality for hundreds of years, perhaps once in 325 years according to one computer analysis. We link our personal account:
In contrast, total lunar eclipses occur roughly once per year—85 times in the 21st century. However, lunar totality might occur during daylight and not be visible except for residents on the night side of our planet. Nevertheless, every 1-3 years the events of a total lunar eclipse may be experienced by residents of half of our planetary globe, barring cloudy conditions. According to my memory, I have observed as many as 15-20 total lunar eclipses during my lifetime. Millions of fellow Earth residents have watched our lunar companion passing into the umbral (total) shadow of earth at least several times during their lifetime. The reason: Earth is a large body casting a very large shadow into space; the Moon is a small body which periodically slips into Earth’s umbra, the planet’s dark shadow. Observers experience a wondrous sense of our location in the celestial scheme!
The eclipse of January 31, 2018 was the only lunar event to qualify as a super blue blood moon eclipse from 1866-2037. Even though this characterization was accurate, observers of that eclipse event may not have noted much difference from other lunar eclipses they had experienced. The so-called “super moon” visually appears slightly larger than ordinary moons throughout the year. Slightly larger moons appear several times per year when the moon swings somewhat closer to Earth in its 27.3 day orbit. Super moons sometimes correspond with total lunar eclipses. Blue moons are not descriptive of the moon’s appearance. Rather, they merely signal a moon phase that occurs as the second full moon in a calendar month—unusual, but not different in a visual sense. And finally, blood moons are descriptive of the dim, subdued color acquired by the moon during total lunar eclipses. Every total lunar eclipse is a blood moon.
Residents of Hawaii and Alaska were able to observe the complete super blue blood moon total lunar eclipse of January 31, 2018, including the hours before and after totality when the satellite was passing into and out of the penumbra, 5 hours 17 minutes to be precise. Residents of Europe were unable to view any part of the lunar eclipse. At the same time Northwest Illinois was experiencing a setting totally eclipsed moon, west coast US California residents observed the moon about two hours before setting. Hawaii and Alaska residents observed the eclipsed moon high in their dark night sky, evidence that we abide on a spherical planet. If they were interested in more esoteric eclipse astronomy, they also experienced the moon passing into the penumbra (partial shadow). One source stated the full Moon passing through the penumbra begins to look a little “dusky” as it approaches Earth’s umbra. This is a subtle phenomenon. When the Moon slowly enters the dark umbral shadow, however, a startling change takes place. There is nothing subtle about it.
Our home planet, our lunar satellite, and our Sun provide a breathtaking celestial system. The last two total eclipses, one solar, one lunar, have highlighted three astronomical players on the stage of Solar System wonders. We close our post with two lines from a 2008 worship chorus, “God you reign” by Lincoln Brewster:
“The skies proclaim, God, you reign.”
“Creation sings, God, you reign.”
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.