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December 20, 2010 / Dave Gorham

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Total Lunar Eclipse

The terms Northern Winter Solstice and Lunar Eclipse aren’t usually used together at the same time, but tonight and tomorrow morning these two terms will become one for the first time in more than 400 years (December 21, 1638).

The official start of winter in the Northern Hemisphere usually occurs either December 21 or 22. It’s when the shortest day of the year occurs and when the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun.  Like the summer solstice, it occurs once a year.

A dark eclipse of the moon. Photo: NASA/Pugh.

The last total lunar eclipse happened February 20-21, 2008. Eclipses occur regularly, however total lunar eclipses are much less frequent.  Astronomers say there will be two in 2011: June 15 and December 10. After that, we will not see a total eclipse until 2014 and we won’t see an eclipse on the solstice again until 2094.

So what is a lunar eclipse, you might ask? A total eclipse can only occur during a full moon. It happens when the Earth is between the sun and moon. Typically we can see the moon because the sunlight is reflecting off of it. However in this case, the Earth is blocking out the sunlight, actually shadowing the moon from the sun’s rays. Some of the sun’s rays do make it through the earth’s atmosphere and that’s what gives the moon its copper glow. This is an especially unusual event because the moon will be extremely high in the sky which will please sky gazers everywhere.

Unlike a solar eclipse, this neat spectacle doesn’t require special viewing, however having binoculars or a telescope will give you an even greater appreciation for this fairly rare event.

The best time to view tonight’s event will be around 12:33 AM CST. This is when the moon will be passing through the shadow of the earth (also known as the umbra.) The moon will slowly progress through this process for nearly 3 ½ hours before slowly emerging out of the shadow and into the penumbra stage before the eclipse ends by 4:30 AM.

The moon passing through the Earth's shadow. Times are Universal. Image: MrEclipse.com.

The best areas to view tonight’s event will be dependent on the weather conditions, sky cover, fog, etc., so I hope you aren’t part of the affected areas. New York and Washington, D.C., look great for eclipse viewing; maybe Atlanta but increasing cloud-cover overnight will become an issue. Miami, Dallas and Omaha should also enjoy acceptable (or better) viewing. Not many areas west of the Plains will have acceptable viewing skies.

The StormWatch forecast for 12:00 AM (CST) Tuesday on top of current (Monday midday) visible satellite image. Source: ImpactWeather Gmaps.

No matter where you are — North America, Europe, China, South America — this is one event where people of every race, sex and age will come together, look outside and be a part of history for the first time and likely last in a lifetime.

For more information about lunar eclipses, including the schedule of all eclipses through 2020, click here.

Viewable regions of the world for tonight's total lunar eclipse. In addition, eastern Asia and Australia should have the eclipse within view. Image: NASA/GSFC.

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