Solstice lunar eclipse set for December 21st

Dec 17, 2010 by Dr. Tony Phillips
A similar lunar eclipse in Nov. 2003. Credit: Jim Fakatselis

Everyone knows that "the moon on the breast of new-fallen snow gives the luster of mid-day to objects below." That is, except during a lunar eclipse.

See for yourself on Dec. 21st, the first day of northern winter, when the passes almost dead-center through Earth's shadow. For 72 minutes of eerie totality, an amber light will play across the snows of North America, throwing landscapes into an unusual state of ruddy shadow.

The eclipse begins on Tuesday morning, Dec. 21st, at 1:33 am EST (Monday, Dec. 20th, at 10:33 pm PST). At that time, Earth's shadow will appear as a dark-red bite at the edge of the lunar disk. It takes about an hour for the "bite" to expand and swallow the entire Moon. Totality commences at 02:41 am EST (11:41 pm PST) and lasts for 72 minutes.

If you're planning to dash out for only one quick look -­ it is December, after all -­ choose this moment: 03:17 am EST (17 minutes past midnight PST). That's when the Moon will be in deepest shadow, displaying the most fantastic shades of coppery red.

From first to last bite, the eclipse favors observers in North America. The entire event can be seen from all points on the continent. Credit: F. Espenak, NASA/GSFC.

Why red?

A quick trip to the Moon provides the answer: Imagine yourself standing on a dusty lunar plain looking up at the sky. Overhead hangs Earth, nightside down, completely hiding the sun behind it. The eclipse is underway. You might expect Earth seen in this way to be utterly dark, but it's not. The rim of the planet is on fire! As you scan your eye around Earth's circumference, you're seeing every sunrise and every sunset in the world, all of them, all at once. This incredible light beams into the heart of Earth's shadow, filling it with a coppery glow and transforming the Moon into a great red orb.

Back on Earth, the shadowed Moon paints newly fallen snow with unfamiliar colors--not much luster, but lots of beauty.

Enjoy the show.

Explore further: NASA's Maven spacecraft reaches Mars this weekend

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User comments : 8

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Ratsqueezer
5 / 5 (1) Dec 17, 2010
Is there any way to calculate the frequency of the dual solstice/eclipse event? A cursory google reveals that it's rather complicated, and I can't find any info regarding frequency specific enough to extrapolate.
phillydrifter
1 / 5 (1) Dec 17, 2010
THEH ALIENS ARE COMING
phillydrifter
1 / 5 (1) Dec 17, 2010
Imagine how it freaked out the natives.
phillydrifter
1 / 5 (2) Dec 18, 2010
I think what the nasa page is saying is that most of the time, when you see a quarter moon or whatever, the 3/4 that you can't see are being blocks by earth's shadow, so eclipses are almost constantly happening, but it's basic math to time the frequencies and it just happens over and over. So when was the last time the US scored a full lunar eclipse? Do you think Sara Palin will see it from her porch?
Doug_Huffman
1 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2010
Yes, it is possible to calculate the occurrence of solar/lunar coincidences, and yes, it is complicated. It is the superposition of quite a number of cyclic relations. For the Lunar cycle, see Metonic, that predicts a 20 Dec 2029 lunar eclipse.
bbd
not rated yet Dec 18, 2010
Solstice lunar eclipse set for December 21st

Gee. It's so nice of NASA to "set" this up for us just before Christmas.
shavera
5 / 5 (2) Dec 18, 2010
@phillydrifter, actually during most moon phases, you can't see a portion because it's not facing the sun. Even these "dark" areas can still pick up some reflected light from earth.
Blicker
5 / 5 (2) Dec 18, 2010
"...you're seeing every sunrise and every sunset in the world, all of them, all at once." - Just love that thought.